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Retweeting in Ancient Rome
Before there was TikTok, Twitter and even Myspace, there were Roman papyrus rolls.
We tend to think of social media as a relatively recent invention with thoroughly modern implications for how people connect and engage with everything from retail brands to politicians.
It’s disrupted traditional media models and reshaped who we look to when we want to be informed.
The reality is, gathering, filtering and distributing information via a chosen social circle is as old as civilization itself.
Through history, it’s actually the more common way societies shared news.
In his book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, Tom Standage points all the way back to ancient Rome for one of the earliest examples of social networking.
Are You Not Informed?
When Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero left Rome in 51 BC, he worried Julius Caesar might attempt to seize power in his absence.
Cicero relied on an elaborate exchange of letters and news, Standage writes, that allowed him to keep surprisingly close tabs on the empire’s capital despite being thousands of miles away.
In something like a Roman retweet, people would frequently share letters and noteworthy speeches, often adding their own commentary or quoting passages from other communiques.
The messages have a lot in common with modern social media, Standage says:
“They are two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social connections, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source.”
– Tom Standage
Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years
Of course, there are modern best practices that come with effective social media campaigns today (Cicero wasn’t setting daily campaign budgets or worrying about text-to-image ratios).
But it’s a good reminder that humans are hard-wired to share information with their tribes while adding their own opinions and perspectives.