Book Review: Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years — by Tom Standage

News bring joy and sorrow — they inform, illuminate, warn, prepare — sometimes they are misused to misinform, confuse and frighten — yet the underlying motive to talk about their emergence is that they often are both a medium and a message: born out of the need to inform and using the perfect mechanism for the task

From the early decision by Ceasar, according to Suetonius, to publish the daily gazette to inform the public of the daily proceedings of the Senate — called acta diurna populi Romani (from where the world journal takes its root) — to French courants — the speed to spread the news was important. In another book by Malcolm Gladwell as well as in Tom’s book, the eloquence to enumerate the good and the ill mattered a lot.

When the vernacular texts allowing readers to grasp the sanctity of a Bible, originally transcribed by Latinian friars, made it into hands of German, Swiss and Netherlands populace, the process was impossible to undo:

“Either the Pope must abolish printing or he must seek a new world to reign over; for else as this world standeth, printing will doubtless abolish him. —John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of John Foxe, 1583”

Criticizing the ways with which Roman Church was collecting invdulgences (ostensibly to finish Sistine Chapel in Rome), shocked by practices of Archbishop Albrecht, Martin Luther wrote countless pamphlets against the Church, while feeling secure in the domain of one of Holy Roman Empire electors — Frederick III of Saxony.

Where local authorities followed Church demand to control publishing and licence the process, clever printers soon found a way around and started adding words “con licentia” or by labeling pamphlets as printed elsewhere.

The combination of established distribution networks, low cost of paper (thanks to developed technology to manufacture it) created a vibrant network with a number of formats to consume information:

Courants, where most popular in France at the time of Richeliue, first appeared in the Netherlands to allow fellow Protestants in the UK get the daily news about the counter-Reformation oppression — hence the courant name (for current events).

Implementation of technology allowed the press business to evolve: for example telegraph initial cost made journalists to crowdsource its news while spreading news through it: in 1848 several NY newspapers pooled their resources, improving their bargaining power over the telegraph cost — they named themselves Associated Press.

While my prime interest in Standage’s book was the historical facts on news dissemination and how it was aided by technology and social fabric of societies that aided the development of news — and consumption of them: as more people arrived into towns, their natural fears won over: suspicion was soothed by news but created a new genre — yellow press — aiding to appearance of Penny Dreadful newspaper and other small stories.

The propagation of paper aided to epistlery and personal journals — but this is another story.