Monday, November 4, 2013

‘Writing on the Wall,’ by Tom Standage

Through the ages: A Roman wax tablet and its 21st-century descendant, the iPad.

For nearly 20 years, we’ve thought of “new media” as the brash young upstart and “old media” as the stalwart if increasingly embattled establishment. But what if new media aren’t as new as we assume — and old media not really old at all? So argues Tom Standage in “Writing on the Wall,” a provocative book that asks us to look at media less in terms of technology — digital or analog? — than in terms of the role they invite us to play. Are we passive receptors for whatever facts, opinions and ad messages come our way? Or are we participants, sharing what we like with others, amending or commenting in the process? The second is characteristic of the Internet in general and social media in particular. But there’s nothing revolutionary about this, Standage says. Instead, it’s the role of consumer, so typical of 20th-­century mass media, that’s unnatural — and to Standage, a historical blip.

This observation has been made before, but never with such a wealth of information to back it up. Standage — the digital editor at The Economist and the author of such unorthodox chronicles as “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” and “The Victorian Internet,” a steampunk classic about the rise of the telegraph — makes a convincing case. Today we equate media with conglomerates and moguls: Time Warner, Viacom, Rupert. But far more representative in media history may have been Cic­ero, who like other upper-class Romans got his news on papyrus rolls that were copied, annotated and passed from person to person. Speeches, books, even personal letters were read aloud by slaves and sent on to friends and acquaintances. This distribution system made early media social; by sharing in this fashion, people were able to do what people do in such situations: signal their interests, define their personas and strengthen their ties with others.

Literacy fell with the Roman Empire. For all but the ecclesiastical elite, media took a 1,000-year holiday. Not until the advent of the printing press did people have much reason to read again. Once they did, Standage says, their behavior reverted to that of the early Romans. Social sharing could produce electrifying effect: The 95 Theses Martin Luther posted on his church door in Wittenberg, printed and passed from hand to hand, spread rapidly across Germany and within a month were known across Europe. Two and a half centuries later, Thomas Paine’s inflammatory anti-British pamphlet “Common Sense” coursed through the American colonies in much the same way. People read it aloud in taverns and coffeehouses; they debated anonymously in newspapers. When it was published in January 1776, independence was all but unthinkable; on July 4 it was declared.

The 18th-century gazettes that served as Paine’s forum, filled as they were with pseudonymous essays, commentary from readers and news cribbed from other sources, were more like blogs than anything we would recognize today as newspapers. But that began to change with the Industrial Revolution. In 1833, just as high-capacity, steam-powered printing presses were coming on the scene, a 23-year-old printer named Benjamin Day started The New York Sun, which sold for a penny at a time when other dailies sold for 6 cents. As Standage explains, Day’s scheme could work only if the paper attracted a lot of paid advertising, and advertisers would come only if they could be guaranteed a big readership. So he hired reporters — a relatively novel idea at the time — who wrote lurid crime reports and fantastical stories about creatures on the moon. Readers came, and with them ads for everything from lotteries to abortionists to patent medicines. Additional reporters were hired, producing additional racy accounts that would send circulation even higher, making the paper even more desirable to advertisers. Success brought imitators, and as it did the role of the press changed. Once a quasi-open platform for discussion and debate, it became an outlet for ads and reporting. Readers, once a community, became a market.

Frank Rose is the author, most recently, of “The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.”

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