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Posts Tagged ‘social web’

25 OCTOBER, 2013

Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome


How the dynamics of papyrus scrolls explain Facebook.

We’ve already seen that modern social media come from a long lineage of primitive predecessors — from the florilegia of the Middle Ages, which predated Tumblr by half a millennium, to Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, the Facebook of its day, to Edison’s early “viral” cat videos to Félix Fénéon’s analog “Twitter” of early 20th-century France. But it turns out social media originated even earlier than that, in ancient Rome. In Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years (public library), history-whisperer Tom Standage takes us to task with debunking our presentism bias by tracing the surprising, scintillating history of what we know as “social media” today. And it turns out we owe it all to the famed Roman statesman Cicero.

In 51 B.C., the Roman Republic passed a new anti-corruption law, requiring high-ranking government officials to take up posts in the provinces. Cicero himself, much to his dismay, was appointed regional governor of Cilicia, a province in present-day Turkey, inconveniently far from Rome’s hotbed of political activity. Anxious about falling behind on critical knowledge about the power dynamics in Rome, Cicero had only one hope: The sophisticated information-exchange network the Roman elite had developed. Standage explains:

At the time there were no printing presses and no paper. Instead, information circulated through the exchange of letters and other documents which were copied, commented on, and shared with others in the form of papyrus rolls. Cicero’s own correspondence, one of the best-preserved collections of letters from the period, shows that he exchanged letters constantly with his friends elsewhere, keeping them up to date with the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others, and providing his own commentary and opinions. Letters were often copied, shared, and quoted in other letters. Some letters were addressed to several people and were written to be read aloud, or to be posted in public for general consumption.

When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he could distribute it by making copies available to his close associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered. Books circulated in a similar way, as sets of papyrus rolls passed from person to person. Anyone who wished to retain a copy of a speech or book would have it transcribed by scribes before passing it on. Copies also circulated of the acta diurna (the “daily acts,” or state gazette), the original of which was posted on a board in the Forum in Rome each day and contained summaries of political debates, proposals for new laws, announcements of births and deaths, the dates of public holidays, and other official information. As he departed for Cilicia, Cicero asked his friend and protégé Marcus Caelius Rufus to send him copies of each day’s gazette along with his letters. But this would be just part of Cicero’s information supply. “Others will write, many will bring me news, much too will reach me even in the way of rumor,” Cicero wrote.

With information flitting from one correspondent to another, this informal system enabled information to penetrate to the farthest provinces within a few weeks at most. News from Rome took around five weeks to reach Britain in the west and seven weeks to reach Syria in the east. Merchants, soldiers, and officials in distant parts would circulate information from the heart of the republic within their own social circles, sharing extracts from letters, speeches, or the state gazette with their friends and passing news and rumors from the frontier back to their contacts in Rome. There was no formal postal service, so letters had to be carried by messengers or given to friends, traders, or travelers heading in the right direction. The result was that Cicero, along with other members of the Roman elite, was kept informed by a web of contacts— the members of his social circle — all of whom gathered, filtered, and distributed information for each other.

This was the dawn of “social media” as we know it today, even though it wasn’t called that, or called anything at all. (Befittingly, though Standage doesn’t draw the connection, Cicero famously believed that if a word was absent from Greek society, it was because the thing it needed to describe had become so prevalent that people had stopped noticing its existence.) The platform on which it unfolded then was one of papyrus scrolls passed around by hand, but the mechanism of transmitting information via a human-powered network was analogous to anything we see on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and platforms we’re yet to imagine. Following Cicero’s web were numerous other examples of the same phenomenon unfolding across different platforms and periods:

Other notable examples include the circulation of letters and other documents in the early Christian church; the torrent of printed tracts that circulated in sixteenth-century Germany at the start of the Reformation; the exchange and copying of gossip-laden poetry in the Tudor and Stuart courts; the dueling political pamphlets with which Royalists and Parliamentarians courted public opinion during the English Civil War; the stream of news sheets and pamphlets that coursed through Enlightenment coffee houses; the first scientific journals and correspondence societies, which enabled far-flung scientists to discuss and build upon each other’s work; the pamphlets and local papers that rallied support for American independence; and the handwritten poems and newsletters of prerevolutionary France, which spread gossip from Paris throughout the country. Such social-media systems arose frequently because, for most of human history, social networks were the dominant means by which new ideas and information spread, in either spoken or written form.

But just as this increasing reach and power of social media was gaining momentum, the nineteenth century screeched everything to a halt:

The advent of the steam-powered printing press, followed in the twentieth century by radio and television, made possible what we now call “mass media.” These new technologies of mass dissemination could supply information directly to large numbers of people with unprecedented speed and efficiency, but their high cost meant that control of the flow of information became concentrated in the hands of a select few. The delivery of information assumed a one-way, centralized, broadcast pattern that overshadowed the tradition of two-way, conversational, and social distribution that had come before. Vast media empires grew up around these mass-media technologies, which also fostered a sense of national identity and allowed autocratic governments to spread propaganda more easily than ever before.

And so we get to the present time, which Standage argues is in many ways a return to the ethos of Cicero’s time — the democratization of tools that the internet has precipitated has allowed us to reclaim ourselves not as a “mass” to be addressed unidirectionally but as a thriving social organism of multidirectional information exchange once again. With that, of course, comes a set of concerns about whether and how much this ubiquity of information exchange has trivialized public discourse, what it might be doing to our brains, how it’s impacting our ability to live offline, and other such familiar refrains of the techno-dystopian complaint choir. (Meanwhile, there’s a heartening case to be made for how the social web is actually making us smarter.)

But Standage’s most important point, which he goes on to examine in detail in Writing on the Wall, is that much like the technologies themselves, the concerns about them are nothing new. What a historical exploration of these analog antecedents afford us is not only more dimensional perspective on our present preoccupations with social media but also the ability to discern the habits, attitudes, modalities, and information systems that best serve our needs as individuals, as communities, and as a civilization.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Aesthetic Consumerism and the Violence of Photography: What Susan Sontag Teaches Us about Visual Culture and the Social Web


“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

Ever since its invention in 1839, the photographic image and its steady evolution have shaped our experience of reality — from chronicling our changing world and recording its diversity to helping us understand the science of emotion to anchored us to consumer culture. But despite the meteoric rise of photography from a niche curiosity to a mass medium over the past century and a half, there’s something ineffably yet indisputably different about visual culture in the digital age — something at once singular and deeply rooted at the essence of the photographic image itself.

Though On Photography (public library) — the seminal collection of essays by reconstructionist Susan Sontag — was originally published in 1977, Sontag’s astute insight resonates with extraordinary timeliness today, shedding light on the psychology and social dynamics of visual culture online.

In the opening essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag contextualizes the question of how and why photographs came to grip us so powerfully:

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.

The lens, one of 100 ideas that changed photography. Click for more.

More than anything, however, Sontag argues that the photographic image is a control mechanism we exert upon the world — upon our experience of it and upon others’ perception of our experience:

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.

What makes this insight particularly prescient is that Sontag arrived at it more than three decades before the age of the social media photostream — the ultimate attempt to control, frame, and package our lives — our idealized lives — for presentation to others, and even to ourselves. The aggression Sontag sees in this purposeful manipulation of reality through the idealized photographic image applies even more poignantly to the aggressive self-framing we practice as we portray ourselves pictorially on Facebook, Instagram, and the like:

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.

Online, thirty-some years after Sontag’s observation, this aggression precipitates a kind of social media violence of self-assertion — a forcible framing of our identity for presentation, for idealization, for currency in an economy of envy.

Even in the 1970s, Sontag was able to see where visual culture was headed, noting that photography had already become “almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing” and had taken on the qualities of a mass art form, meaning most who practice it don’t practice it as an art. Rather, Sontag presages, the photograph became a utility in our cultural power-dynamics:

It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

She goes even further in asserting photography’s inherent violence:

Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon — one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring. Popular taste expects an easy, an invisible technology. Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all-knowing, and responds to the slightest pressure of the will. It’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger. Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.

The camera obscura, one of 100 ideas that changed photography. Click for more.

But in addition to dividing us along a power hierarchy, photographs also connect us into communities and nuclear units. Sontag writes:

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.

One has to wonder, however, whether — and how much — the family circle has been replaced by the social circle as we construct our online communities around photostreams and shared timelines. Similarly, Sontag notes the heightened use of photography in tourism. There, images validate experience, which raises the question of whether we engage in a kind of “social media tourism” today as we vicariously devour other people’s lives. Sontag writes:

Photographs … help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time. It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.


A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it — by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.

Out of those souvenirs we build a fantasy — one we project about our own lives, and one we deduce about those of others:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

But Sontag’s most piercing — and perhaps most heartbreaking — insight about leisure and photography touches on our cultural cult of productivity, which we worship at the expense of our ability to be truly present. For most of us, especially those who find tremendous fulfillment and absorption in our work, Sontag’s observation about the photograph as a self-soothing tool against the anxiety of “inefficiency” rings terrifyingly true:

The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

From 'Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.' Click image for more.

At the same time, photography is both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it:

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

This seems especially true, if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines — our very lives — are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself. And so the photographic image becomes an affirmation of our very existence, one whose power is invariably addictive:

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.


It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.

On Photography remains a cultural classic of the most timeless kind, with every reading unfolding timelier and timelier insights as our visual vernacular continues to evolve. Complement it with 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, the curious legacy of image manipulation before Photoshop, and the history of photography, animated.

For more of Sontag’s brilliant brain, see her wisdom on writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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28 MAY, 2013

Amanda Palmer on Creativity as Connecting Dots and the Terrifying Joy of Sharing Your Art Online


“We can only connect the dots that we collect.”

“How are we so brave to take step after step? Day after day?,” Maira Kalman pondered. “How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip, and then get up and say O.K.?”

In her wonderful keynote at the 2013 Grub Muse literary conference on creativity and the marketplace, Amanda Palmer — she of great wisdom on the art of asking without shame — considers why creativity is the product of connecting dots and addresses the quintessential question of how to put yourself and your work out there, in the Wild West of the internet, fully knowing how messy it can get and yet how wonderful, how open to cold criticism it can leave you and yet how capable of warming others.

Some thoughts, highlights, and dot-connecting below:

Buried in the generally brilliant argument of her opening parable is a specific unfair assumption: What Amanda describes as the supremacy of art’s disposition over that of science applies not to science vs. art but to bad science vs. good art, for “the impulse to connect the dots and share what you’ve connected” is not only what makes a great artist or writer but also, unequivocally, what makes a great scientist.

She recounts reactions to her recent experience of the Boston bombings:

To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the act of making art.

She notes with equal parts eloquence and poignancy the duality of the internet’s promise and the tsunami of trolls that can come with each wave of attention:

For every bridge you build together with your community of readers, there’s a new set of trolls who sit underneath it.

“Every line and word is vitally connected with my life, my life only,” Henry Miller observed in his timeless reflections on writing, “be it in the form of deed, event, fact, thought, emotion, desire, evasion, frustration, dream, revery, vagary, even the unfinished nothings which float listlessly.” Beloved graphic designer Paula Scher likened creativity to a slot machine of subjective lived experience. Amanda eloquently echoes these sentiments in her own creative credo:

We can only connect the dots that we collect, which makes everything you write about you. … Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell.

She sums up what it all comes down to on the internet:

In order for it to work, the door must remain unlocked. People might enter without knocking, they might crash your party and drink your wine. Let them in, and let them drink — because you might meet somebody interesting.

Creating art in a time of trauma, she argues, illustrates with greater poignancy than anything what makes the internet beautiful:

People might shout, “This is not the time for metaphor! This is not the time for art! And this is certainly not the time for art about you!” But once you’ve shared your art and it’s resonated with a single person, it’s no longer about you — once you share it, it’s about everybody. And if your art is found by a single soul, shared with a friend who links it to a friend, and the response is whatever it is, you start to see how art becomes about everybody — just through the act of being shared.

(Cue in David Foster Wallace, who famous wrote, “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”)

But, ultimately, Amanda’s most pressing point is about dismantling the antiquated structures that tell us how to touch people with what we create and building from the ground up this new ecosystem where the only thing that matters is that we touch them:

Self-publishing without authentication and without that wand of legitimacy brushing your shoulder is truly scary. And there’s self-publishing a book, which at least resembles something real, and then there’s posting your shit to the internet. But I’ve found, what resonates resonates — the format doesn’t matter. … I’m not suggesting in the slightest that you forsake your painstakingly edited work and your protected, well-groomed and agonized-over treasures, and post them to the internet tomorrow. … But you can, if you want — if you’re brave — you can yell down into the marketplace and find your friends, and the crowd that would resonate with you, without permission from on high. Because anything you write in any format can change somebody, can change an opinion, can scratch an opening in a scared up heart of a human being — and it doesn’t matter how you do it.

If your writing is good, if it resonates, if it connects the dots for anybody out there, the lovers will come, the haters will come, support will come — sometimes in the form of money, sometimes in the form of something less expected — and it balances.

A resounding secular Amen!

Amanda is one of the good humans. You can support her by buying, as pay-what-you-will downloads, some of her gorgeous music and enjoying her writing.

Open Culture

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Anaïs Nin on the Meaning of Life & the Dangers of the Internet (1946)


“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”

Last week’s widely reverberating meditations on the meaning of life by cultural icons like Charles Bukowski, Annie Dillard, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Cage reminded me of a passage from the altogether sublime The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us this poignant reflection on why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

In an entry from May 1946, Anaïs Nin once again challenges our presentism bias by thinking deeply and timelessly about issues we tend to believe we’re brushing up against for the very first time, from the pitfalls of always-on communication technology to the pace of modern life to the venom of procrastination.

Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it.

The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

For more on Nin’s timeless insights on life, see Lisa Congdon’s stunning hand-lettered diary quotes.

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