“To modern eyes, the chaotic and adversarial media environment of the 1640s has much in common with the Internet’s blogging culture,” he writes. “To modern eyes these tablets, with their flat writing surfaces surrounded by a wooden frame, look strikingly similar to tablet computers.” Well, I suppose if you’re looking for similarities between the primitive wax tablets used for correspondence by the Roman elite and the iPad, you can find them. But how similar are they, really, aside from their rectangular shape? The iPad is a commercial product from a multibillion-dollar corporation, marketed to middle-class consumers who use it to send messages, take photos, play games, compose marketing presentations, watch episodes of MasterChef, wake themselves up in the morning, and myriad other purposes. A wax tablet is a wax tablet.
Things that appear similar from a distance gradually reveal their differences on closer examination, and the more you think about some of Standage’s analogies, the keener the differences become. I quite liked the section about how the residents of ancient Rome would scribble messages on city walls—hotel reviews, sexual boasts, political endorsements—but I’m not entirely convinced that those messages actually constitute some sort of antediluvian Facebook wall. It certainly seems that, like today’s social platforms, Roman walls offered relatively unmediated spaces in which residents could interact, with nobody to direct the conversations or guide them toward productive ends. But there is a significant difference between messages that exist in a fixed physical space and those that exist only in digital form. A different format means a different user experience, and Standage’s failure to substantively address these differences makes it hard to actually gauge the value of the comparison.
Similarly, I question whether Martin Luther’s experiences are all that relevant to our understanding of modern viral content. Yes, the speed with which Luther’s arguments spread somewhat resembles the way that modern causes can find huge support in a small amount of time. But isn’t the difference that something actually came of the 95 Theses? Luther fractured Christendom. He sparked the Reformation. Modern social campaigns come and go in days, as flighty Tweeters move on to the next big cause or petition, or simply turn their attention to hot new photos of dogs wearing hats. That’s not to say that Twitter and Facebook and the rest could never be used to galvanize significant social change. It’s just that today’s social media platforms are so much busier and broader than those in Luther’s era that it’s hard to attempt any sort of direct or useful comparison. If Luther had issued the 95 Theses today, they would be forced to compete for attention with lists of 95 Great Places to Eat in Wittenberg; which do you think would be more popular?
Yeah, that’s pretty much what I had in mind.