Why Facebook and Twitter are so last year

Last week , the world's most popular virtual social network, Facebook, paid US$19 billion (S$24 billion) for mobile messaging service WhatsApp. Facebook said it did so because WhatsApp would help it have a bigger business stake in the future.

But, you might well ask, why would an instant messaging service for smartphones attract such big bucks?

British author Tom Standage's new book holds many clues to crack that question.

His chief contention in this absorbing account is that while technology has leapt and bounded through time, human behaviour has hardly changed since the first person wrote on cave walls.

Standage, who is digital editor of The Economist news magazine, scrutinises how and why social media has such organising force and is so hard to police and predict. For example, he notes, America in July 1775 was warming to the idea of being governed by the British.

But after anti-colonialist Thomas Paine published his colonialism-denouncing pamphlet Common Sense on Jan 10, 1776, the mood in America shifted so swiftly that within six months, Paine and his compatriots declared independence from British rule.

Standage's research disproves the belief that the medium is the message; he shows instead that it is communities with messages which are the medium.

His focus, then, is on those social media systems that enable person-to-person interactions beyond all borders, and he examines various examples of these in Western civilisation over 2,000 years.

That includes showing you why and how the long daily debates among thinkers in the coffeehouses of 18th-century Europe are no different from the first attempts of academics in the early 1960s who e-mail one another their hunches and critiques.

His quest to demystify social media for the reader begins with finding out why primates, a group that includes humans, have much larger brains than any other species.

Science shows that is because their brains have to take in and work out their very complex social systems.

For example, whenever you see, say, two orang utans picking bugs out of one another's hair, it is not just their way of whiling away the time; they are actually sharing vital information about their surroundings, likely predators and what others within their group are up to.

The human equivalent of ape grooming is gossip, which cements the social links that are so crucial to life because these help you see where you stand in society - and against whom you should guard your interests.

The ancient Romans, notably the savvy statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, thrived on gossip.

In a time before paper and the printing press were invented, Cicero and his ilk hired scribes and messengers to copy speeches, documents and occasional news items from the town square noticeboard and then rush the papyrus scrolls or iPad-sized wax tablets containing all that to households across the expansive Roman empire.

That network, Standage argues, was the first social media system.

He points out that the Greeks, who devised the world's first alphabet in 8th century BC and were full of sophisticated ideas, missed the boat on inventing social media because they preferred to air and debate their views in public, instead of writing them for wider dissemination.

So dominant was the Roman social media system that when its empire fell in the 5th century, literacy in the West was all but wiped out because it was expensive to learn to read and write. Things were so dire that well into the 15th century, the University of Cambridge library had only 122 books.

Readers would have had a fuller experience of history if Standage had delved into how the Chinese invented paper or how it was that the Muslims, not Europeans, preserved and passed on ancient Western knowledge to all.

After all, it was only after Muslim traders took paper to Europe in the 10th century that it became cheaper to spread information.

So it was that around 1440, German innovator Johannes Gutenberg invented the world's first hand-cranked printer.

That enabled his compatriot Martin Luther to mount in 1517 what Standage considers the first revolt against authority, by distributing 250,000 printed pamphlets across Germany to decry the Catholic Church's practice of selling people promises to absolve their sins - even before the latter had committed them.

The author is careful to stress, though, that the social media movement that Gutenberg and Luther unwittingly unleashed could not have caused the revolt, but only "signalled" to like-minded people that their views had strong support and "synchronised" their protests.

This signalling and synchronising role is now amplified immensely by the fast and pervasive Internet, but he insists that governments should not lose sleep over that because it is actually a good alert and gauge of the troubles, and troublemakers, ahead.

The rub is, he often proves too succinct in his observations for readers' comfort.

For example, he says that while using search engines may encourage forgetfulness and imprecision, he asserts that it is not a bad thing because it frees the mind from pedantry.

An assertion, however, is not the same as an argument and he should back up his many acute and tantalising views more.

Standage is also disappointingly silent on the issue of how governments and others in authority could strategise their use of, and response to, social media better.

So all we learn from him about authority and social media is that rulers learnt from Luther's rants to clamp down hard on publishers, licensing them and corralling them into guilds so they could be controlled more tightly.

It was only from the mid- 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution brought the speedier steam- powered press and the electric telegraph, that American entrepreneur Benjamin Day could organise the first centralised social media system, also known as the newspaper.

His business model, to gather a huge pool of readers and then sell access to them to businessmen via paid advertisements in his newspaper, is still in use today.

Standage does not, however, discuss deeply the transition from that model to the vagaries of making money from Internet socialising.

What of the future, then? After noting that entities such as Facebook are innovating more products to sell to users - unlike newspapers, which sell access to their readers - Standage says the one sure thing is that social network peddlers will continue to pop up, in different shapes and sizes.

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