The Social Media Are Not So New.

March 21st, 2014

[This is a reprint of a post I initially wrote in December of 2008. I haven’t done a thing to it yet, thus the broken image links, etc.]

Students walking the pier at St. Andrews,
where I studied the Reformation in a former life.

[Note: This is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the Austin Social Media Breakfast held on 2 December 2008.]

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Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, in the mid-90s I took a master’s degree in European history, and because I was going for the glamor, I focused on the Reformation — Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, all that.

Little did I know that my study of the social upheaval of the 16th century would come in handy today for understanding the social media of the 21st century. And little did you know that I would be here to explain the connection to you.

Lucky us!

So, in the next 15 minutes I hope my painless little history lesson will I’ll convince you that our oh-so-new social media are very much like the media that have gone before, not because the 16th century enjoyed good WiFi connections, but because people tend to use the media available to them for much the same human purposes.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Okay, Martin Luther — who was he? A priest in Germany who worked in the first half of the 1500s; he wrote the 95 Theses that were nailed up to the church door; he protested against the Roman Catholic Church; and ultimately helped split the Christian Church in two in western Europe. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, he was kind of a big deal. To get an idea of what he meant in his day, you might take a prolific political commentator like Andrew Sullivan, then combine him with a radical social reformer like Gandhi, then combine that with Shakespeare, since Luther had the same influence on modern German that Shakespeare had on modern English.

So, we’re in 16th-century Germany, we’ve got lots of social upheaval. So what? Well, the way that Luther gained so much influence is of interest to us because he used . . . a new form of communication technology that had recently gotten substantially cheaper and enabled the formation of new communities of interest around new ideas. Sound familiar?

Okay, so I’m phrasing that to support my thesis, but stick with me. Some of what Luther did was ancient. The written word had already been used for ages to convey religious concepts. We see that in the scriptures of all the great religions. And it had been used to build community among the faithful. An easy example would be the letters written by the Apostle Paul in the early days of the Christian church. Handwritten texts.

But that’s where the technology stood until the middle of the fifteenth century, about 30 years before Luther was born, when Gutenberg used the first moveable-type press in all of Europe to print — what? — a Bible.

Image via Wikimedia.

Up until then, and for a few decades after, books were the province of the very rich or the very educated. They weren’t for general consumption, which was just as well when you considered that most people didn’t know how to read.

So what were the media that most people used, if not print media? Pause for a second to think about the meaning of the word “medium”: it’s a means by which humans communicate with one another. That’s all. So what did they use, back then? They talked.

My talking to you here is the medium of speech, and it seems pretty low-tech. But consider how, depending on the venue and right technological enhancements, the spoken word can be . . .

  • personal — one-to-one
  • narrowcast — one-to-a-few, like I’m doing here
  • broadcast — one-to-many
  • or beyond that, under the right conditions, it can become many-to-many — that is, it can become social.

Keep in mind that in Luther’s day, a preacher with a powerful voice could stand at a pulpit in a big church, or on a balcony over a town square, and get a message out to hundreds or thousands of people at a time, and then they would discuss it among themselves, like we talk about sports or politics.

Image source.

Let me make an argument here, which I hope we’ll take up later during Q&A: Sometimes we confuse ourselves, or at least we use overly narrow definitions, when we think that “media” must refer to the modern MASS media. One of the most effective mass media of the old days was a town crier, a man with a strong voice who could read out proclamations. This isn’t very different from a peanut vendor at a baseball game today. It’s narrowcasting compared to the Wall Street Journal or HBO, but still, you don’t have to have modern means of distribution for it to count as media.

Okay, so what did Luther actually DO with the media available? He and his followers took this new technology of printing, which had been coming down enough in price to make it accessible, and they joined it with these existing oral media already common in German society.

So, Luther would preach a sermon that someone would write down, and then it would be put into type. Once it was printed, this pamphlet could be carried all over the place. And then it would have its second and third and fourth lives in the social space.

Image source.

For instance:

  • A small-town preacher might read the pamphlet, make up his own sermon around it — maybe verbatim, maybe not — then preach it to his congregation. (If you squint, this is like on early modern version of Tumblr.)
  • A pamphlet might find its way to a tavern, where someone literate would read it out so that everyone there could debate it. (This is at least something like blogging.)
  • Or a printer in another town might get the pamphlet and print his own edition. Maybe it would be identical, maybe it would introduce new thoughts — or errors. They could do this freely because they didn’t have copyright like we do. (Think here about peer-to-peer file-sharing.)

You get the point: one message, multiple paths of transmission into the audience Luther was trying to reach. And note how easily the message jumped from one medium to another. When we think today of our “old” media, we’re used to one medium bringing together multiple messages, like an issue of a magazine has multiple stories. But the reverse has always been happening, too — one message, a meme, jumps across different media. It’s just that the technology we use today speeds things up immensely.

Now, thinking about Luther’s message, we find at least three things that are distinct from the Content itself and from one another. These are going to be even more important in a minute when we get to the 21st century, and here’s where the diagram on your handout will be useful:

  • C is for Content.
  • There are the Users — that is, Luther’s audience.
  • There are the Technologies being used.
  • There are commercial relationships around the message.

It’s worth thinking about how these things work before we ever get to Internet-land.

So let’s walk through this for Luther’s case. Mostly, he wasn’t concerned about the technology. He was a prolific writer in both German and Latin; he wrote books, pamphlets, sermons, letters, even hymns. His point was to get his religious message across to his Users, whichever way he could, because he literally thought that people’s souls hung in the balance — and a lot of them thought so, too. And like a lot of social reformers, he didn’t care if it made him any money.

Now the technology did matter to some of Luther’s audience. If you’re illiterate, you’re out of luck if the message stays on the page. (This makes me think of the lightweight apps for cell phones being used in developing parts of the world; those folks are out of luck if it has to be done on a desktop.)

Now think about the commercial interest, and especially the printers who published all of this stuff. They made money when they sold the pamphlets, but they didn’t collect royalties when somebody read the pamphlet in a tavern, or when another printer copied it. By the way, some of these printers weren’t especially theologically minded: they were taking the business that walked in the door. And they weren’t building media empires, either, because the mass media were too young and too fragmented.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Let’s keep these factors in mind as we leap ahead to the 20th century and briefly consider Mr. Bob Hope. Note this: from the time Hope started in show business until his middle age, he was, at different times, the biggest draw . . .

  • on vaudeville,
  • on the radio,
  • on Broadway,
  • in the movies, and
  • on television.

Here’s the thing I want to point out: he did all of that with basically the same content, the same schtick. He had new topical material all the time, but that persona — the wisecracks, the touchy ego, the slick patter — was the same from his vaudeville days on.

So why did he succeed commercially in all these different media? Partly because his career coincided with these great changes in technology; we as a society moved from vaudeville to TV in about 30 years. Partly it was because Hope was a black hole of human neediness who would do anything to stay in the spotlight.

But the biggest factor was that his content could port across all these different technological media because it fit all of their economic engines. He made people laugh, and audiences would pay to laugh. So there’s the end user and the commercial interest rolled into one, and it made Bob Hope a very rich man.

Image via Wikipedia.

Now, why do I have the mimeograph listed on your sheet? Because I want you to think, for a second, about how it’s a social medium, too. But first let me ask some questions:

  • How many of you got handouts in school made on a mimeograph? Chuch bulletins, maybe? How about ’zines?
  • How many of you, when I ask that, can smell the mimeograph ink, right now? Have I provoked a little olfactory nostalgia?

We don’t have time to go into a history of the mimeograph, but I want you to think about how it was an amazing sort of narrowcast medium that fell somewhere between one-on-one media like handwritten notes and mass media like newspapers.

Mimeographs basically allowed you, on the cheap, to do on paper what I’m doing here: communicate directly with a small group of people. (Hello, Twitter!) You could use it like the pamphlets back in Martin Luther’s day, but without going to the printshop. You could do it on the fly. You could make just the copies you needed, without having to worry about the economics of the thing. Which was good, because in many cases, mimeographs were used for content that lacked a direct commercial interest. You weren’t going to get rich pumping out corporate memos or classroom handouts on the mimeograph, and you might earn some indie cred with your music ’zine, but you probably couldn’t quit you day job from the proceeds. In sum: strong on end users, a great technology for narrowcasting, not so great in commercial terms.

Photo by Dan Taylor.

Okay, quickly, what about Steve Jobs? Apple hasn’t made big waves in the social media as we commonly think of it. But it’s worth a moment to ponder, for the millionth time, how Jobs helped redefine a major mass medium — recorded music — in a way that married good-enough technology with a fairly sweet user experience and a SERIOUSLY sweet commercial model. If you’re looking for peer-to-peer user interaction, not so great, but ehh . . .

So let’s bring it all back home: Over a broad sweep of time and these very different examples, what do we see?

There’s content, which might be conversations, literature, news, commentary, music. It could be cash money. (Think about it: what content does Western Union deal in these days?)

There’s the end user, who may or may not be a content creator, who may or may not care about the technology, and who may or may not have a stake in the commercial model of the medium — or a stake in your sweeping program of social reform, for that matter.

Then there’s the technology. Most of the people in this room care about the technology ten times more than average social-media users, since we’re helping to build and deploy it. But sometimes we forget that, for the purposes of social communication, the human voice is also a medium. Pencil on paper is a medium. If we happen fall in love with the technology itself, great, but our love for it might be neither here nor there in terms of the end user or the commercial question.

Photo by kabils.

I grant you, the “social media” as we usually talk about them: yes, the technology makes a hell of a lot of difference. But I’ve tried to convince you that the technology . . . it’s not everything.

Finally, there’s the commercial interest, which for many of us translates into terms like “business model” or “monetization.” But I think it’s important that we remember that “social media” is not a synonym for “social media marketing” or “IT spending on social media” or “how I want to get rich in social media.”

So before we move on to a free-for-all discussion that will go down in history like Woodstock, I’ll leave you with this: from Martin Luther’s day to this, the interplay between the social sphere and the media has always been complex, and it’s always involved personal media, narrowcast, mass media, and many-to-many connections that wou could call social media. Technological change has always unsettled this interplay, and has always led to unpredictable social, commercial, and personal changes. And I believe it’s worth it for us to open our minds to the ways that social media is not so new if we want to understand how to shape the world of social media that we’re living in today.

Now I would love to hear your questions and comments.

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Related links.

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St. Andrews photo by See Wah, used under a CC-Share Alike license.

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