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SXSW Interactive 2014

Tweet Like a Roman: Social Media's Long History

It’s easy to assume that social media is a recent development. But the exchange of media within social networks goes back centuries. I think it can be traced back to Roman times, when members of the elite shared and copied letters, speeches and books with their social circles. The technology was different, but the desire to share information and connect with friends was the same.
This is just one of many historical precedents of modern social media. Others include Reformation-era pamphlets, the keeping of commonplace books, the sharing of news in Enlightenment coffeehouses, the pamphlets and local papers of the American Revolution, and the gossipy poems that circulated in pre-Revolutionary France.
These ancient forms of social media prompted many of the same questions that have arisen today. Can social media trigger revolutions? Is it a distracting waste of time? Is it just a fad? Examining the social-media systems that arose in centuries past can provide some unexpected answers.

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  1. What is social media, really? Can taking a historical step back can help us define it more easily?
  2. What examples of social media exist in the pre-digital era?
  3. What reactions did historical forms of social media provoke, and what were the historical, cultural and political consequences of its use?
  4. What can today's social-media users learn, by analogy, from the reaction to historical forms of social media?
  5. What are the implications for the modern media industry? Was the mass-media era of the 20th century a historical anomaly? Might that explain why some media companies are in such difficulty now?



Tom Standage, Digital Editor, The Economist

Meta Information:

  • Tags: social media, history
  • Event: Interactive
  • Format: Solo
  • Track: WTF and Beyond
  • Track 2
  • Level: Intermediate
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