Book review: Writing on the Wall — Social Media the First 2,000 Years

By Magda David Hercheui

For those of us who follow social media for a while, the book title is very provocative. We all know we mean something very specific about social media and certainly this digital context was not there 2,000 years ago. I start reading the book with curiosity, to discover how the key argument could stand.

For sure the author differentiates very much between what would be social media across time, and the sorts of impact different communication technologies have in diverse contexts. The argument evolves gradually to show, however, that some elements which are today emphasised in the digital social media environment have been present in other communication media, with similar relevance in their own time.

The focus on digital social media comes only in chapter 11, in which a summary of the emergence of the Internet and social networks is discussed. In this chapter, in addition to historical data, Tom Standage discusses a very important aspect of social media and democracy, and the risks of surveillance and state control of these spaces. Finally in the epilogue, the author advances some ideas on what lessons we can learn from the old media to understand what is coming for digital social media platforms, and how companies have realised the benefits of using these platforms.

The book has a very interesting flow of ideas and anecdotes about the way communication means have evolved through centuries, and the impact of these technologies in societies, or, from a different perspective, how societies have appropriated communication technologies through time. And in this ground, we could see some social media aspects through centuries. You are going to feel familiarity with the topics, especially if you have already studied communications. If you have not, this is an excellent opportunity to entertain yourself revising the topic.

Who should read this book? It is not a book for people who are looking for more pragmatic tips on social media, such as the best application of social media for marketing and for collaboration. There is nothing new in the book in this front, again for those who have been working with social media for a while.

This is a book for those of us who are fascinated by the power of communication and the relevance of sharing knowledge and information. This is a book for those who feel emotional to imagine that one day people have invented the technique of recording information through writing, and that Gutenberg has made printing books in large scale possible and cheaper. It is a book to remind us how newspapers and pamphlets have grounded the development of public spheres and supported better democracies. And it is a book to celebrate again Tim Bernes-Lee’s decision of developing and distributing for free the WorldWideWeb programme, which supported the creation of web pages and hypertext as we know it.

Tom Standage goes back on time to explore step by step of these developments of communication, from writing in clay, to writing in papyrus, to printing books and pamphlets, to developing the mass media, and to developing the Internet and the social media platforms. This is our human history on how we have invented and appropriate technology to broaden our communication space, and our capacity of sharing information and knowledge.

We are in the beginning of our next step in history, of creating a global digital social network which can bring good and bad, and which will bring good and bad in different moments. There is plenty of food for thought to imagine optimistic and pessimistic futures. The book has reinforced my belief that the risks are concrete, but the opportunities for having the benefits of communication and sharing of information and knowledge have never been more promising.

About the author

Dr. Magda David Hercheui is senior lecturer at Westminster Business School, social media consultant, and editor of New Media Knowledge.

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