Wednesday Keynote: The Future of Social Media – An Historical Perspective

This is a live blog of the keynote presentation “The Future of Social Media – An Historical Perspective” by Tom Standage at DrupalCon London.

Tom Standage is Digital Editor for The Economist. They just moved from ColdFusion to Drupal… (they wanted to burn the CF discs when they were done@

“Social Media” isn’t new, it goes back to the Romans. Getting information from one person to another has always been around, but with the rise of technology it is now global, permanent and searchable. However, it was actually more social in history of course… people actually talked to each other!



The Romans used tablets to communicate, actually resembling the iPad. Rome’s centralized system of government required a system of letters that would go back and forth throughout the empire. The only newspaper was posted in the forum and scribes would copy it down, bring it to their owners and letters were then sent out. Letters weren’t private – they were semi-public and in fact copied and passed around.

Books were published the same way. You would write a scroll and then pass copies to your friends who would pass it to theirs. Same for speeches.

The enabling technology of the day was the scribes – kind of like today’s broadband. The better the scribe, the higher your bandwidth.


Lots of information was literally posted on people’s walls. Information was painted on the walls of homes and buildings to get the word out. People would even comment on what was written all around it on the wall. In fact, Ciscera lamented the amount of information streaming in – he didn’t really care about the gladiator results.

The most successful user of Roman social media was the Apostle Paul. His letters were written to specific churches or people, but they were open and copied, read and distributed around the empire… in fact, this example of the Roman social media is still in use in homes and churches today!


Actually started in the Reformation. Martin Luther, a priest in Germany, wrote his theses (primarily against indulgences) to his Bishop and arch-Bishop and then spread them all over Germany. Luther’s pamphlet spread all over Europe as preachers would talk about it and others would request it from their local printers. Each pamphlet cost about the price of a chicken – so it was affordable for the average person. It’s said that between 6 and 7 million pamphlets were sold in Europe in the first 10 years of the Reformation. For many, this was the first written thing they ever bought. For the first time, people could purchase/read a message and decide for themselves.

His idea that people should be able to talk directly to God was radical: kind of like the common people railing against a major corporation on twitter. Corporations face the same decisions that the Catholic church did during the reformation – how do we respond to a social wave?

Flame Wars during the English Civil War

In 1640, as England slide into civil war, the crown lost control of the printing presses. Having a Bible and being able to read it was important to everyone at the time: literacy was very high in England at this time.

During the war, pamphlets were printed daily to bring news of the war – mostly quoting letters from soldiers etc. Opinion pamphlets and rebuttal pamphlets would follow. Really the beginning of free speech in England.

John Milton – “Let truth and falsehood grapple”. The origins of the open source movement – people floating ideas at coffee houses – reading and rebutting pamphlets – coffee houses would actually specialize in different topics. Many coffee houses turned into institutions such as Lloyd’s of London. Openness of ideas, testing and sharing all started here.

“Liking” – Thomas Paine and 25,000 other liked this

To keep ideas away from the common person in America in 1700′s, a paper and Stamp Tax was applied so that people couldn’t afford it. This was one of the things that lead to the Revolution of course.

As the War of Independence went on, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called “Common Sense” on January 10, 1776. A copy reached George Washington – and he proclaimed that all officers should read parts of it to their men every night. “Social connections” distributed this idea to the masses. It helped rally the people to victory.

So the idea of social media isn’t really new at all.

Then it all went wrong in 1833. The steam press created the newspaper – very cost effective. The model went from subscriber driven to advertising driven. A small group of people decide what goes into the media. It became a one-way push and stopped being a two-way conversation. In 2008, 87% of income for US newspapers came from advertisers.

The internet has broken this model: horizontal transmission of information has been restored and information no longer comes only from a few.

History tells us that social media is powerful…


  • Social media will play an important role in the political process in China.
  • It will stimulate more innovation in science and business. The 1990′s look like the stone age” when compared with the social media today
  • New religions may be able to really gain traction through social media.
  • We will contribute to the revival of the social context that has laid dormant for around 200 years.

This was a fantastic presentation. Very well presented. Informative and entertaining.

I highly encourage you to watch the video when its posted.


  • Rod Martin

    Rod holds two masters degrees and has been training people how to do "things" for over 25 years. Originally from Australia, he grew up in Canada and now resides just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. He has worked in both the non-profit and for-profit worlds, in small companies and large corporations. His extensive open source experience includes WordPress, Joomla and Drupal and he really knows how to help you get the most out of the system you chose. Rod plays ice hockey a couple of times a week and rides his Goldwing motorcycle pretty much everywhere he can.

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