Michelle Sullivan Communications

How the Romans invented the Internet: Tom Standage and I

I may have surprised students in my first Current Trends in Digital Communications class at McGill on Thursday night by talking about the ancient Romans, but I wouldn’t have surprised anyone who knows me. My tribe gets me. And, apparently, Tom Standage is a member of that tribe.

Did you know…

Romans may have been the first to retweet?

Or that Romans specialized in sharing content with their networks?

Don’t believe me? Check out these quotes and this presentation about Tom Standage’s book Writing on the Wall.

“You say my letter has been widely published: well I don’t care. Indeed I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.”

“I sent you on March 24 a copy of Balbus’s letter to me and of Caesar’s letter to him”

– Cicero to Atticus

Like Standage, I’ve always believed that social media has ancient roots and responds to a fundamental human need. Technology didn’t suddenly make us more sociable … we were always sociable. It didn’t create our thirst to share knowledge and connect with one another. We were always looking for that connection. It just made it easier for us to do it with a large group of people from around the world, many of whom we will never actually meet offline.

Now broadcast media? THAT’s the aberration.

So the next time someone tells you social media is for kids and is ruining civilisation, you’ll know what to answer. The Romans did it!


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