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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

What if the 'new media' were 2,000 years old?

However we feel about the rise of social media, we tend to assume it’s new. Right? But the British author of the new book Writing on the Wall argues that this has been the dominant way that ideas and arguments have spread for all but, oh, about 150 of the last 2,000 years.

I heard this on the radio. Our public station in Vermont carries a Canadian program, Spark, which this Saturday, while I was running my Saturday errands, broadcast a conversation with Tom Standage, author of digital editor of The Economist and writer of this new book. He says that beginning with the Roman elite of Cicero and Ceasar, in about the first century B.C., the usual way that ideas and arguments would spread was by two-way, conversational media.

The Romans wrote and then passed around their letters to each other, open letters that carried the day’s news and their views on it. In this same way they published speeches and pamphlets, which Standage likens to the blogs of that era. Books, which had to be copied by hand, were rarer, and were published when enough demand for a title was built through these speedier exchanges.

This was the way people generally shared their news and opinions well into the 18th-century London era of coffee houses. Those cafes — which often specialized in a subject like science, government or finance — became the “penny universities” of their day, and were hugely influential centers of exchange. Then, in the 1800s, machines began to be devised that could convey messages and information to great numbers of people. These machines, first the steam press and later broadcast media, were expensive — and those who could afford them, the companies that could employ them, began to dominate the flow.

“So media goes from being two-way and conversational and person-to-person to being one-way, and this broadcast method takes over,” Stoppage told program host Nora Young. “But this is short-term.”

That’s because around 1996 comes the Internet. Now, anyone with access to the Web has the potential to reach very large numbers of people, at very low cost — and to hear back from them. Now we can see that the monopoly-access media companies are starting to lose their dominance — even, as with many newspapers, to fall apart. And now we have a hybrid of broadcast and social media. Everyone’s trying to figure out how that’s going to look, and to work — but there’s no question that social media, which Stoppage calls “really old media,” dating back to the Romans, has reasserted itself.

I don’t know about you, but this gives me a completely different slant. As a YA novelist who has gone to independent publishing with my 13th and 14th books, I definitely see the book industry democratizing, and becoming more two-way. For better or worse, the big publishers, which have lately grown increasingly gigantic and fewer in number, will never again have near-total command of the market. Whatever that winds up meaning, it’s the new reality.

With social media, I worry over the tendency for the most-used vehicles to have less and less content borne of thought. We seem to be going from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, which is basically sharing photos. I worry about this. But it’s all happening — and it lends a new perspective to see it all in this deep, historical context.

Don’t you think? (By the way, to listen to the conversation about Writing on the Wall, go here.)

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Tuesday, 17 September 2019

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