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Writing on the Wall

Social Media - The First 2,000 Years

Tom Standage

Bloomsbury USA

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ISBN10: 1620402858
ISBN13: 9781620402856


288 Pages



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Social media is anything but a new phenomenon. From the papyrus letters that Cicero and other Roman statesmen used to exchange news, to the hand-printed tracts of the Reformation and the pamphlets that spread propaganda during the American and French revolutions, the ways people shared information with their peers in the past are echoed in the present. After decades of newspapers, radio, and television dominating in dissemination of information, the Internet has spawned a reemergence of social media as a powerful new way for individuals to share information with their friends, driving public discourse in new ways.

Standage reminds us how historical social networks have much in common with modern social media. The Catholic Church's dilemmas in responding to Martin Luther's attacks are similar to those of today's large institutions in responding to criticism on the Internet, for example, and seventeenth-century complaints about the distractions of coffeehouses mirror modern concerns about social media. Invoking figures from Thomas Paine to Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet, Standage explores themes that have long been debated, from the tension between freedom of expression and censorship to social media's role in spurring innovation and fomenting revolution. Writing on the Wall draws on history to cast provocative new light on today's social media and encourages debate and discussion about how we'll communicate in the future.


Praise for Writing on the Wall

"Provocative . . . a wealth of information." —The New York Times Book Review

"Standage has just this one big point to make, but he makes it elegantly and instructively . . . what we tend to regard as the radiant novelty of the digital age may really be a rebirth." —The Wall Street Journal

"I've been a big fan of Standage's ever since his book The Victorian Internet, about the rise of the telegraph, which shed a lot of light on network technologies while also being great fun. Now he's done it again."—Paul Krugman, The New York Times

"Standage skillfully traces the many incarnations of social media in the last two thousand years, but he also reveals how closely modern anxieties and arguments about new media echo earlier sentiments." —Nick Romeo, The Daily Beast

"This book will change the way you think about social media. It reveals that today's technologies are helping us scratch a timeless itch to connect and share."—Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape, cofounder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz

"Tom Standage once again displays his ingenious gift for connecting our historical past to the debates and technologies of the present day. Writing on the Wall makes an entertaining and persuasive argument."—Steven Johnson, author of Future Perfect and Where Good Ideas Come From

"On the Internet we continue an old tradition of social media, pioneered in the Roman Republic. Writing on the Wall shows how we're retweeting the past at this very moment and inventing the future."—Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

"Tom Standage's gripping history shows that the era of mass media dominance that we grew up in was a two-century anomaly in the natural course of our culture. Media used to be social and is becoming even more so again."—Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

"The technologies are different, but the habit of sharing information horizontally and in two directions is a lot older than the Internet, argues the Economist's digital editor." —Kirkus Reviews

"A thoroughly fascinating look at the evolution of social media."—Booklist (starred review)

"Standage captures quite beautifully the essence of the human need to connect and interact, both its banality and world-altering power." —Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Tom Standage

Tom Standage is digital editor at the Economist and editor in chief of He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Victorian Internet, described by the Wall Street Journal as a “dot-com cult classic.” Standage has written for numerous publications, including Wired, the New York Times, and the Guardian. He lives in London with his wife and children. Visit his website at