The online communication landscape that is social media didn’t arrive fully formed and ready-to-go – it has enjoyed many years of gestation and training.
Many commentators point to the development of ArpaNet as the birth of social media’s underpinning technology, but I believe it stretches back further than that.
James Harkin, in his book Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Life and Who We Are (published by Knopf Canada) argues convincingly that the online world as we know it has its roots buried deep behind the front lines of World War II, when British military minds were desperately attempting to find ways of accelerating the tracking and targeting of German bombers by those whose thankless task it was to manoeuvre slow and cumbersome anti-aircraft machinery. James’ book has a great website, by the way.
One could take the birth of social media back even further in time – to an era before computers (let’s call it BC), and a period when men and women with ideas could stand on boxes and proselytize their views to sometimes disparaging audiences.
Consider, if you will, Judea two thousand years ago – soothsayers, prophets and political ‘wannabes’ would stand and deliver their views at the risk of boring any audience they could capture, or inciting them to some sort of action. It’s not hard to recall Monty Python’s movie Life of Brian (1979) in such moments.
But I believe that to find the birthing ground of social media, we need to look further back in human history, to a time when thoughts and ideas were unable to be written down – something like 7.34pm on a mild Tuesday in mid-April, around 165,000 BCE (Before Common Era). Give or take 50,000 years.
Mitochondrial Eve, the mother of us all, lived on one of the many plains of Africa, and with her fellow clan members gathered and shared childcare duties while the men hunted. Come evening, they would all gather together and share the fruits of their labours.
The men would recount how they combined forces to track and kill that night’s dinner, while Eve and her sisters would discuss local foraging opportunities.
There was no formal language as we would recognise it, but because of a genetic mutation around 30,000 years prior, Eve and her clan did have the ability to communicate via speech, albeit with a vocabulary far smaller than ours, and with a slower delivery and simpler grammatical structure. Eve wasn’t quite ready to dictate Hamlet.
Having progressed past the rock-banging and the jumping-up-and-down method of communication, Eve and her contemporaries were sophisticated enough in their communication to be able to manage moving out of Africa and across to Asia, then on to New Guinea, Australia and eventually into Europe.
It is, therefore, not too big a leap of the imagination to envisage Eve and her fellow clan members discussing, arguing and negotiating about the big and small issues of each day; and thus was a social communication environment born. Their ‘medium’ was, of course, primarily speech, possibly augmented with sticks and lines drawn in the sand.
Media versus medium
‘Media’, according to Dictionary.com, is the plural of ‘medium’, which it also holds to be – amongst many things – “an instrument or means by which something is conveyed or accomplished” and “one of the means or channels of general communication, information, or entertainment in society”.
My trusty and dog-eared New Collins Concise English Dictionary agrees that ‘media’ is the plural of ‘medium’, which it holds, inter alia, to be “an intervening substance or agency for transmitting or producing an effective vehicle” and “a means or agency for communicating or diffusing information, etc., to the public”, further noting that “careful writers and speakers do not use ‘media’ as a singular noun when referring to a medium of mass communication: ‘television’ is a valuable medium (not media) for advertising”.
Thus, social media can arguably be various channels or instruments by which ideas can be expressed, shared, debated and/or negotiated.
Looking at the development of human communication over the millennia, I believe that various channels or vehicles for expressing, sharing, discussing and negotiating have come about as homosapiens like Mitochondrial Eve progressed her tribe along the path of civilization.
It is the developmental work of only a few hundred thousand years from speech-rendered proto-language to the sophisticated word and visual play of today’s digital multimedia artists – and note that we have five times more words to play with than Shakespeare had in his time.
Let us hop in that handy time-machine over in the corner of the cave and fast-forward to 2004 – arguably the year when everything started. (Actually, the technological seeds of 2004 are rooted further back, to 1999 and beyond, but for the sake of simplicity and illumination, let’s focus on 2004).
In 2004 blogging came to the world’s attention – personal online publishing moved out of the hitherto ‘IT geek’ domain and into the consciousness of the general public.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article on 15 August 2007 in which the author claimed that the blog, as a distinct life-form, started on 23 December 1997 with the publication by Jorn Barger of his site, ‘Robot Wisdom’. That claim was quickly shot down by the blogosphere (something that the blogosphere is exceptionally quick and able to do), which pointed out that Steve Jackson had been publishing a site called ‘The Daily Illuminator’ since December 1994.
Such a heady claim was subsequently trumped by Electronic Frontier Foundation chairman Brad Templeton, who speculated that the blog has its origins pre ‘World Wide Web’, residing in the moderated newsgroup mod.ber, run by founder Brian E. Redman (the ber) and friends. Templeton went on to claim that his own moderated newsgroup, rec.humor.funny/netfunny.com, may possibly be the longest still-running blog, being nearly 22 years old (beginning life on 7August 1987).
What all of these sites allowed was a serial publishing schedule – like a journal – written as a series of new items on a semi-regular basis, with a coherent and personal editorial voice (whether that voice was the voice of one person or a small team), and the ability for readers to comment in some way.
It was a small leap from Eve to this very blog before you — and some would argue that the language hasn’t developed much in the interim, either, but that’s just nitpicking, innit?!