Student sets out to review everything in existence. Fails miserably.
As I’ve been particularly busy lately, I here present the first in a series of guest posts by my good friend and perennial grumpy old man, Mr. Alexander P. Williams Esquire.
Ask the grandparents of today what defines this new 21st century society, and they would probably tell you (in between coughing and mentioning the war) that it’s the pithy exchange of seemingly useless information through the internet’s social media.
Yes Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and many more besides seem to epitomise today’s Britain; the banal self absorbed and above all terribly boring goings on of everyday life seem to be an ever growing staple in our cultural diet. The quote “Whether you have any news or not, write something” is surely an apt one here.
Take Twitter for example; people will just take any old tosh that just comes into their head and write it down for their friends, people who up until now may have liked and respected them. Now I don’t have anything wrong with people writing things down per se (or else I’d be out of a job) but when its informational content is based around one’s fairly average dinner, then that surely is a sign that humanity has fallen forever into the abyss of depravity from atop which surely our ancestors would look upon us and hang their heads in shame.
Or would they? Remember that apt quote two paragraphs ago? Sounds like something Mark Zuckerberg would say doesn’t it? Well, in fact it comes from the stylus of one Marcus Tullius Cicero (no, not the new Beckham child) – objectively the first social networker, who predated the internet by about two millennia.
Long before Mr Zuckerberg, back in the year 51 BC, this philosopher was changing the way people shared information. His writings, instead of going straight to the library, were passed around Rome through a team of messengers. That’s right, he paid people to run through a city to find you, and then tell you what he was having for dinner. Kind of puts your notifications into perspective, doesn’t it?
During one foray to the country, he wrote to his friend Atticus back in the city: “I shall write to you every day, for I prefer to send letters to no purpose rather than for you to have no messenger to give one to, if there should be anything you think I ought to know.” Writing for no purpose? Damn it Rome! We knew you were decadent what with the whole Royal orgies, slaves fighting lions, killing the Christians thing; but Latin Facebook? A new low my friends, a new low…
(However, the Roman dislike button was a lot better at getting the point across.)
The exchange is detailed in Writing On The Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, which is published this week. Written by The Economist’s Tom Standage, it puts forward the theory that Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al are just the latest incarnations of a tradition that dates back to the Ancient World.
According to Sandage, Cicero was a figurehead in the first ever social network. Just as today’s media is tagged and shared, Cicero’s letters would be copied and sent to others in the chain, and for messages sent across distances which required a quick response (such as the ever-popular OMFG just seen Ceaser, he is well buff!), words were inscribed on wax tablets in wooden frames, the obvious precursor of the iPad.
(We believe Apple are already trying to sue ancient Rome.)
Standage goes on: “Members of the Roman elite wrote to each other constantly, recounting the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others and providing commentary and opinion.” Very nice. However, those in Rome who couldn’t afford Ancient Twitter had their own Facebook wall, and of course I mean a real one. In Pompeii, graffiti was laboriously carved and painted on public surfaces. So what enlightened words did the Romans our Latin ancestors leave for us? Well, “The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian” and “Antimetus got me pregnant” are just two of the complaints found in the ruined city, which does pose the question of how someone managed to sneak out of a restaurant, carve a message into a wall, and get back to the table without arousing suspicion in their partner. You can’t just wave that amount of time away as ‘I was in the toilet.’
But it doesn’t stop at Romans. In the Tudor Court of Anne Boleyn, the Devonshire Manuscript allowed young courtiers to write and reply to each other through poetry and gossip in a document that was passed around. In the same century, Sir John Harington entertained Elizabeth I’s court with his humorous poetry and became known as the Queen’s ‘saucy Godson’. Take that Duffy! Poet laureate you may be but you will never have a nickname as good as that! Godson, or Saucy as I like to call him, wrote down short quips and went around court handing them out, easily making him the @saucygodson Twitter account of the age.
There are many other examples but this blog can only be so long, you can read about the others in Standage’s book, which he concludes by saying “All these different technologies push the same buttons in our brains. They all satisfy a timeless urge to connect and share with other people. Social media is as popular as it is because it lets us scratch a prehistoric itch.”
So there you have it, next time you’re sharing pointless information, feel a little less guilty in knowing that it’s just human nature. Though would you please stop spamming my Facebook wall with pictures of food.