DigVentures Evolution of Social MediaLove it or hate it, social media dominates contemporary society like no other format. With last week’s Twitter floatation making the company worth $30 billion, six times the value of the 500 year old Post Office (a resolutely ‘old school’ rival floated on the stock market just the week before) we take an archaeological look at this most modern of modern phenomena to ask: how modern is it really?

Many claim it will be the ruin of our future generations, plaguing teachers with students who want 2 save the proper gramma 4 l8r and toddlers who learn to tweet before they can speak. But before Granny *face palms*, and totes emotes about the good old days, it’s worth remembering that social media is not a new phenomenon. Social networking is defined as using ‘applications to interact with other users, or to find people with similar interests to one’s own.’ According to Tom Standage in his new book “Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years” It has been around for much longer than we might imagine, though disguised in forms rather more twee than tweet.

Roman Facebook

Roman Social MediaStepping back to 51BC Rome we meet Marcus Tullis ‘Zuckerberg’ Cicero, not quite founder of Facebook, but certainly founder of new ideas about social interaction. Messengers were sent to deliver his writings through the city and replies, however big or small, were welcomed. His mantra ‘whether you have any news or not, write something’ is one we wish fewer Facebook fans still honoured. The style of his Roman text talk (SPD for ‘salutem plurimam dicit’ – sends many greetings) is both polite and efficient, and who has time to write things in full? Yolo after all, right? But not all ancient social networking was quite so polite though, and the statuses posted on Pompeii graffiti walls show there were definitely some trolls out there. With comments including ‘The man I am dining with is a barbarian’ and ‘Antimetus got me pregnant’ it’s clear the Romans weren’t all pressing the Like button.

Medieval Blogging

Fast forward to the 1530s and 1540s in England and we’re really getting into the swing of communal interaction. The Devonshire Manuscript was a book shared by various figures at the Court of Anne Boleyn to write poetry, declare opinions and spread gossip. Young courtiers could write and reply to each other making private conversations public, sound familiar?

Post-Medieval Twitter

But it wasn’t until the 17th century, with the arrival in England of coffeehouses from the Arab world, that this idea-sharing culture fully took root. Archaeological evidence for these new establishments has been found on a number of sites in London. They were extraordinary because all men were equal when they stepped inside. Social distinctions were left at the door. Gentlemen could discuss Roman History with tradesmen, and mechanics could argue over the best way to store beer with noblemen. Some coffeehouses even specialised in certain topics, and the only entry fee was the penny it cost for a cup, thus their nickname ‘penny universities.’ The melting pot of innovation created by these establishments was considered so dangerous Charles II even tried to ban them.

Pewter tankards recently excavated from a site near London Bridge, one of which is inscribed with “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”.

Pewter tankards recently excavated from a site near London Bridge, one of which is inscribed with “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”.

Social networking of the past meant the mixing of social classes, the circulation of opinions and the advancement of knowledge. So what does it mean today? Well it means exactly the same thing. Our quills may have been replaced with a stylus but the basics remain the same. Instead of focusing on the negatives of social media, history shows us that there are also many positives – the people it connects who would never usually interact and the ideas published which would otherwise remain hidden. To sum up in 140 characters: social media’s been around for 2000 years, and will be for at least another 2000. Please RT.

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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