In honor of the SOPA blackout on the web, I highlight an interesting article in the Economist:
Social media in the 16th Century
How Luther went viral
Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media
helped bring about the Reformation
This article describes the amazing similarities of the world of print circa 1500 to the Internet, specifically social media sites. Both eras featured new communication technologies. However, most people thinking of today’s exculsive publishing houses, blockbuster books, and mass-media marketing don’t realize that print in 1500 had none of these features. Rather, it was like the web – a loose network, not controlled by a central authority, where stories were shared and “liked” by a vast network of independent readers/writers.
According the this historical analysis, the later, social-network style of print allow new ideas to spread rapidly. Luther’s writing were copied, printed, and spread by friends to other cities. In those cities, local printers who liked what they read re-set and re-printed the stories, and in turn sent them to their own “friend networks”. It’s very different from a central publishing house issuing approved books which are distributed via mass marketing techniques, typical of print today. In 1500 there were no magazines, but there were thousands of “pamplets” – short books, which in their style were very similar to modern-day blogs and social network postings. As they were printed and reprinted, the pamplets often got more material added. New books might cut and paste excerpts from other books, “mashup” style.
The point of the article was that free exchange of ideas during the Reformation, and in later social movements like the American Revolution, benefited greatly from the “social network” style of printing. As large publishing houses began mass-marketing a few authors in “official” books and magazines the benefit was lost. Instead of information sharing, the focus now shifted to protection of intellectual property.
Now to SOPA. The right to remove content can only be seen as “old media” – radio, television, movies, print publishes – trying to convert the social network into something they are familar with – an elitist, 1% group distributing their work to passive consumers. This was the model of the “mass media” 20th century until its end, when the “social network” style reasserted itself via the Internet. During the Reformation, plenty of the power elite – Kings, Popes, officials – tried to stop the flow of print. Today, the equivalents of these characters are trying to do the same.
How does this impact sustainability? It would be fascinating to see if the “cost per symbol” of print and the Internet is lower in a lateral, social network style system compared to a one-way mass-media model. While the one-way broadcast model might have efficiencies in economy of scale, it also limits information – so we might talk about the “difficulty” of information exchange as a cost. The end result might be that a one type causes a net use of more paper or bits to allow the same level of discussion and commentary. Which is more sustainable? This is something we should explore. It may be that a SOPA world would waste more power to get out the same messages.