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David Bodanis

Networking Down the Ages

Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years
By Tom Standage (Bloomsbury 278pp 14.99)

Authors have it hard. Publishers scarcely exist, copyright is impossible to enforce and books become known not through stores or proper advertising, but by scattered personal recommendations. Even once-famous names end up trying to get their works noted by popular sites. The agony is not just that of our present digital era, but that of Cicero's Rome. And 17th-century England. And pre-Revolutionary France. And pretty much everywhere that Tom Standage - The Economist's digital editor and the most illuminating of Britain's technology writers - casts his searchlight gaze.

That changed with the era of big newspapers and big publishing houses, which was boosted by the new steam presses of the 19th century. For 150 years communication was conceived in terms of Northcliffe's Daily Mail, or Reith's BBC. A handful of mighty beings stood at the top with hands folded, solemnly speaking out. The rest of us waited, passive supplicants, far below. Just a few years ago, all this seemed secure. But in the grand scheme of things, we can now see that it was only a blip. The media were different before, and Standage makes a strong case they'll be different again.

First of all, our brains are exceptionally well designed for peer-to-peer observation. Primates have big brains compared to other mammals, and much of our extra volume is in the neocortex. The bigger the neocortex, the bigger the social network a creature can sustain. Howler monkeys have a relatively small neocortex (occupying 65 per cent of the brain) and a typical group size of 8. Proboscis monkeys have a larger neocortex (67 per cent) and a group size of 14. The neocortex of macaques is bigger still and their group size averages 40; chimps continue the trend, and so - to an even greater extent - do humans. Gossiping, assessing rank, keeping networks stable: this comparative biology shows we all contain intense little parliamentary whips inside us. As soon as literacy developed, humans used writing to spread gossip. Virgil wrote about the swift-winged goddess of rumour: 'In the day she posts herself on the summits of the highest buildings to see all; in the night she perambulates the firmament to relate all; she never takes repose, as assiduous in spreading the false as in distributing the true.'

That's the basis for hard work, since all that raw rumour has to be filtered down - selectively boosted or deleted - via our likes, relinks, and all the rest. Getting a book into a patron's library was as exciting in Cicero's time as getting it mentioned on Andrew Sullivan's blog: multitudes of others could then access it and spread it further. This was the glue that held Rome's upper classes together.

Lower down the social scale, Facebook-style wall postings were common then too. Over ten thousand survive on the whitewashed walls of villas and shops in the town of Pompeii alone. Many were simple status updates, of the same staggering banality for outsiders - yet seemingly infinite fascination for insiders - as the phone conversations we overhear on the train:

- On 19 April, I made bread.
- On 20 April, I gave a cloak to be washed. On 7 May, a headband.
- The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian.
- Atimetus got me pregnant.

There are comments that would fit on TripAdvisor ('Phoebus had a first-rate time at this inn') and on the Twitter feeds of sniping trolls ('Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!'; 'Virgula to her friend Tertius: you are disgusting!'). There are laments at the chaos and noise from 'the tedious scribblings of so many writers', but the general rule was that scripsit qui voluit: 'Anyone who wanted to, wrote.'

The elite were as guilty of adding to the cacophony as anyone. 'Write to me every day ... When you have nothing to say, why, say just that!' Cicero himself begged his friend Atticus.

There was more than just neural contact going on there. St Paul and many other early Church organisers used peer-to-peer networks to spread their new faith quickly, working below the radar of the Roman authorities and coming up with clever innovations - especially the breaking up of traditional Latin rivers of text with paragraph marks and punctuation symbols - to help their cause grow. In 18th-century France (as Robert Darnton and others have described), small bits of paper were ideal for spreading facts - or at least what were often taken to be facts - that the authorities wanted to keep from ever being revealed. Government officials in the 1740s collected enough informal messages - passed in cafés, salons and on the street - to fill 35 large volumes. Louis XV himself liked to hear what was in them - imagine a trendily bewigged Dave Cameron skimming through his people's tweets.

When the messages were too rude or too dangerous, the secret police tried to trace them, but the authors were masked by distance in time and space, and the vagaries of memory. One particular trail of invective in pre-Revolutionary France was traced back from a medical student to a friend, and before him a priest, and before him a second priest, and then a third priest, 'who had heard it from a law student, who had heard it from a clerk, who had heard it from a philosophy student ... who had heard it from another student who could not be found'.

That's the world which the 19th-century steam presses and expensive 20th-century BBC radio masts started to squash, but which is now expanding once again. Standage is wise enough to recognise that history doesn't repeat itself - at most it rhymes. He understands that there are few eternal patterns to human behaviour - no ahistorical understanding to be had about blinks, or outliers, or tipping points. There will be a few repeats, as with the way China's government is learning that censorship can succeed, even against a multitude of P2P contacts. But mostly we exist so embedded in our particular histories that only when a specific mix of events comes together does society 'jump' from one channel to another.

Standage has identified the most important triggers that initiated some of those jumps in the past. He's the go-to man to identify the triggers for what comes next. I suppose you can ask the editor of The Economist to locate him, somewhere in that behemoth organisation. Or - who knows? - he might be on email, ready to hear directly from you.

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David Bodanis's history of the Ten Commandments will be published by Bloomsbury next year.

Royal Literary Fund

John Murray