The next time someone complains that letter writing is a lost art, thanks to email and Facebook, and that people simply don't communicate as frequently or as thoughtfully now as they did in the good old days, you can hand them a copy of Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage's entertaining and thought-provoking survey of the ways that various social media have developed and evolved since Roman times until now.

Conducting us on a fascinating journey through the back roads of media history, journalist Standage (The Victorian Internet) traces the development of social media to Cicero, who constantly exchanged letters with friends around the Roman Empire so that he could keep up with its political affairs and daily activities. He then chronicles the development of social media from the circulation of Paul's letters in the early Christian communities and the deluge of printed tracts in 16th-century Germany, to the exchange of gossip-laden poetry in Tudor courts, John Donne's practice of circulating his poetry as a means of self-promotion and the establishment of Enlightenment-era coffeehouses that provided the social context and literary atmosphere for writing and exchanging news sheets and pamphlets.

Standage contrasts social media with mass media, which developed in the mid-19th century and which delivered information or social propaganda in an impersonal manner that did not foster conversation among individuals. Contrary to mass media, "social media are two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social networks, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source."

As the public became disenchanted with mass media in the 21st century, new forms of social media such as Facebook and Twitter developed and provided individuals with a way to disseminate information about politics and other matters quickly and broadly to their societies. As an example, Standage points to the use of Facebook, YouTube and other social media as instrumental in the revolutionary movement of the Arab Spring that began in 2010.

Standage concludes that "whatever form social media takes in the future, it is clear that it is not going away. Blogs are the new pamphlets; microblogs and online social networks are the new coffeehouses. They are all shared, social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds, rather than having to squeeze through the bottleneck of social broadcast media." After reading this stimulating survey, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree.

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