Tom Standage’s piece “How Luther Went Viral” from The Economist is one of the most important things I’ve read during my time at Queensland Theological College. It became a significant part of the thinking behind my Masters thesis. It was published a while back – but it was a foretaste of Standage’s forthcoming book about ancient social media - Writing on the Wall. Which I’m very much looking forward to reading.
Here’s 16 minutes on ancient social media from Tom Standage that is worth your time.
He defines social media – in order to avoid anachronistically reading web 2.0 platforms back into the past as:
Media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community.
He says the elements required for “social media” to flourish are:
- Low cost of transmission.
He looks at Cicero, and he looks at Luther – two of the people I deal with in my project – but I think he misses the missing link between these two.
The Apostle Paul.
(note: other than the fact that there’s a direct link, because Luther was a big fan of Cicero – as, incidentally, was Augustine, he’s pretty popular with Christians who are serious about communication).
I think the Apostle Paul was also a practitioner of ancient social media.
UPDATE: Tom Standage tweeted me to let me know Paul is in his book… Which is another compelling reason to pre-order it.
There’s an article doing the rounds about Jesus being the original tweeter too – but I don’t think he had a monopoly on pithy statements of wisdom. Moses, Solomon, and plenty of people outside the Judeo-Christian tradition were speaking in soundbites before Jesus.
Standage provides a bit of a teaser for his book in a post on his blog that describes Cicero’s approach to promoting his books (this gets a mention in the video), where he suggests Cicero was a social media practitioner in the context of the Roman publishing industry.
He describes the reliance on social networks for books to be circulated, and printed… which I’ll suggest is interesting when one considers the form/genre the New Testament takes. Coming, as it does, in easily (and widely) copied written volumes, about 100 years after Cicero…
Here’s an interesting insight into the purpose of publishing in Rome.
The sign of a successful book was that booksellers would have copies of it made for sale to the public — something they would only do if they were sure people would buy them. Roman authors, then, wanted their books to be as widely copied by as many people as possible, and ideally wanted copies to end up being put on sale, even though the author himself would not benefit financially. Instead, Roman authors benefited from their books in other ways: they were a way to achieve fame, highlight or strengthen the author’s social connection with an influential patron, get a better job, and generally advance in Roman society. Roman publishing was all about social networking, and Roman books were a form of social media.
If the success of an ancient document is assessed based on the volume of copies of manuscripts circulating and the spread, and longevity of the social networking spreading them – then the New Testament texts, and the Christian community are incredible examples.
While I believe that this is divinely orchestrated, the “natural” explanation of this success – because I think God works through natural, human causes, by equipping people for tasks – is equally fascinating. I’d suggest that the Apostle Paul was every bit as effective when it came to social media as Cicero, and that the relatively egalitarian social structure of the early church and non-reliance on famous and educated patrons for works to spread removed some of the inhibiting factors at play in the late Roman Republic, such that the New Testament spread further, and faster, than Cicero’s works.
I’ve tried to make the case for a link between Paul and Cicero for a while – here, I’m just going to compare them…
Cicero: Communicator par excellence
Here’s a cool quote from Cicero, who Standage suggests is the father of social media, from the video above:
“You say my letter has been widely published: well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.”
Sharing and circulating has always been at the heart of social media – it’s not something Facebook discovered.
Here’s Standage’s justification for that suggestion (from the blog post linked above):
To modern eyes this all seems strangely familiar. Cicero was, to use today’s internet jargon, a participant in a “social media” system: that is, an environment in which people can publish, discuss, recommend and share items of interest within a group of friends and associates, passing noteworthy items from one social circle to another. The Romans did it with papyrus rolls and messengers; today hundreds of millions of people do the same things rather more quickly and easily using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other internet tools. The technologies involved are very different, but these two forms of social media, separated by two millennia, share many of the same underlying structures and dynamics: 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. This exchange of information allows discussion and debate to take place within a distributed community whose members may never meet each other in person.
The two-way thing is particularly interesting to me – there’s a guy, James Grunig, who’s the doyen of modern, ethical, public relations theory. His big thesis is that rather than being a one way information distribution thing, or an attempt to persuade or manipulate, public relations and communication should be “two-way,” and rather than being two way where the communicator adopts a posture of power and authority – it should be “symmetrical” – a genuine conversation, where your partner is treated as equal.
Cicero wasn’t just an orator par excellence, or a social media user par excellence – he was a public relations strategist par excellence – except he lost. And was executed by his opponents. But he was only executed because he was noticed, heard, and understood – he just happened to be speaking against the move from Republic to Empire.
Here’s a bit more from Standage…
“By the end of the first century BC a more formal way to announce and promote a new book, called the recitatio, had established itself. This was a launch party at which a book (or excerpts from it) were read to an invited audience, either by the author or by a skilled slave known as a lector. Once the reading was over, a presentation copy of the book would be given to the dedicatee, and other less fancy copies would be made available to the author’s friends and associates. The work was then considered to have been published, in the sense that it had been formally released by its author for reading, copying and circulation. At that point the book was on its own and would either spread — or not, depending on whether the author had succeeded in generating sufficient buzz.”
James Grunig, incidentally, had this to say about social media and symmetrical communication in a Q&A on a PR blog, before Facebook became the global behemoth it now is, back in 2008…
I believe the new media are perfect for practicing the two-way symmetrical model. I think it would be difficult to practice any of the other models effectively with the new media. Unfortunately, I’m afraid a lot of public relations practitioners try to practice these other models with cyber media.
Historically, whenever a new medium is invented people use it in the same way that they used the existing media. So, for example, when television was invented journalists tended to use it like radio by simply televising someone reading the news rather than using pictures.
With today’s new cyber media, public relations practitioners first used it like they used publications—as a means of dumping information on the public (following either the press agentry or public information model). With the advent of Web 2.0, however, practitioners seem to be adopting a dialogical model by listening to publics, discussing problems and issues with them, and interpreting their organization’s actions and behaviours to publics.
Effective communication through “social media” isn’t about dumping information on people and running away. Not now – and not for Cicero.
Effective communication through “social media” has, since Cicero, been about getting the conversation happening to spread your message further, growing its influence.
For Cicero, this meant propagating the values of the Republic through his books. His version of the Republic. His virtues. His understanding of the ideal Roman, the ideal orator, the ideal statesman, the ideal state… which are (largely) the focus of his publications.
Cicero’s books – and I’ve read quite a few of them – are packed with ideas. They were a sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, rear guard defence of Republican values. They were pointed social commentary, offering a strong alternative vision for the shape of Rome.
And while I’m a big fan of Cicero, and a big fan of a lot of his principles in the face of the Empire – his integrity, the value he places on democracy and his semi-egalitarian desire to see people rise on merit, not limited by birth, his championing of oratorical substance over style (though style was pretty important), even his faux-stoic Roman virtues – one often feels that his writing functions to underline his fundamental thesis – Rome and Roman society should revolve around people exactly like him…
That’s between the lines of all his treaties on the ideal orator – where he never names himself as the ideal, but always hints at it, while encouraging people to find worthy orators to imitate. In many ways I’d like to be like Cicero, especially in how I communicate.
But, in many ways, I’d rather be like Paul. Who I think takes Cicero’s approach to new heights.
Now. Lets compare the pair.
Paul: A more excellent Communicator
Brand Jesus has lasted almost 2,000 years. The message has circulated, and been propagated with a pretty incredible degree of accuracy since it was first written down – and a huge part of the message was written by Paul. Even if you’re a “minimalist” type who doesn’t think Paul wrote some of the stuff attributed to him. These arguments usually rely on assuming Paul was incapable of employing more than one written style, or voice, an objection that is baseless if he is actually a trained communicator.
In any case, the popular criticism that Christianity was invented by Paul contains a kernel of truth. If not for Paul, then Christianity wouldn’t have circulated the way it did, reaching the heights of influence it has, lasting the length of time it has. Paul is, by any modern measure, a master communicator.
While there’s heaps of New Testament scholarship out there that writes off Paul’s rhetorical or oratorical abilities on the basis of one self-deprecating verse about his speaking in 2 Corinthians (which I think can be nicely explained as part of a connection with Cicero), when it comes to communication excellence Paul the publisher is closely related to Paul the speaker. This is equally true for Cicero. His speeches and books work together to present his message – they feed into one another. This relationship is tightened, and formalised, when one considers volumes that contain speeches by each communicator – for Cicero, there are plenty of extant copies of his speeches, for Paul, there’s Luke’s description of his modus operandi, and summarised content, in the Book of Acts.
I think Acts indicates that Paul gets “social”… here are a couple of quick examples… when establishing an audience for his message, Paul always heads to places where discussion is happening, like in Athens (Acts 17). Where he starts in the marketplace, where Luke says:
“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”
That’s where you go to start a conversation. If you get the social media thing.
His longer term strategy – in places he stays for a while – is to converse in the same location, presumably with the same audience. So when he hits Ephesus (Acts 19)…
“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”
That’s a lot of people. It’s a pretty big network of relationships.
He also writes to the church in this town – an epistle – Ephesians – that most scholars believe was to be read out to the church, but also to be duplicated, kept in the community, and circulated further afield. The evidence – manuscript evidence, and historical evidence, suggests this happened.
He maintains this network of relationships – with a bit of a driveby catch up with the Ephesian elders as he bypasses Ephesus on his way back to Jerusalem (Acts 20).
His words in that meeting are interesting because they support the view that Paul was a “social media” practitioner, who used relationships to drive the circulation of his message such that Luke says the whole town and region heard it.
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
Paul’s approach is all about authentic relationships. And conversation.
You could mount an interesting comparison between Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and any of Cicero’s works on virtues, or being a citizen. Citizenship of God’s kingdom is pretty high on his agenda – but Paul, in Ephesians, also intentionally democratises the spread of his message. That’s where it lands.
All the Ephesians, not just Paul, have a role to play in spreading this message. Owning it. Not just endorsing it.
Which is a particularly cutting edge use of social media – Cicero might have relied on endorsements and patronage – but Paul deliberately encourages every person in his network to transmit their own version of his message, through their words and lives.
Here are some bits from the letter to the Ephesians, chapters 4 and 5, that reveal, I think, part of this strategy… First, in terms of developing social networks that last…
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Second, encouraging this network to participate in communicating – in part through ethos (another thing Paul and Cicero have in common) – the message of Jesus in a multimedia way… he keeps referring to sensory inputs beyond hearing speech, and reading that communicate something… and again, he encourages people to participate in the process.
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God…
… Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He expands on the communication side of things a bit more in his letters to the Corinthians, which I think are more deliberately focused on questions of communication (amongst other issues)… But finally, the way he closes the letter (Ephesians 6) reveals two things – his understanding of his message, and his role as messenger, and the importance he places on an ongoing friendship and partnership in this expanding network…
Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.
The repetition in that last part is emphatic. The strength of Paul’s social media model depends on feeling connected, socially. This has a spiritual aspect for Christians, but in sociological terms it proved quite effective as a communication tool, and still proves to be the case today.
We’ve seen that just this week – with the shocking and horrific bombing of a church in Pakistan, churches from across the globe – including in Australia – are communicating with those on the ground in Pakistan with a spirit of brotherhood, in a giant social network. This time with the modern convenience of social media.
I think Paul’s fairly consistent references to his fellow workers, and to people he has close relationships with in the towns receiving his letters is further evidence that they function, much the same way as Cicero’s books. These are indicative of some of the relationships Paul must have relied upon to spread his books. Priscilla and Aquila would be a great example – geographically mobile, they pop up in Corinth and Rome, they could well have been responsible for taking copies of Paul’s letters from church to church, and they would’ve had access to new letters Paul was writing in the times they were together with him… Even though both men ended up dying for their convictions, Paul’s social media campaign has been much more effective than Cicero’s. If we accept Standage’s definition:
Media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community.
Chances are people today are much more familiar with Paul’s work than Cicero’s – even outside the church.
This is probably, in part, because death was part of the package for Paul – as he promoted a crucified king, while Cicero’s horrible death simply served to highlight the death of that which he stood for. The values of the Republic.
This has implications for Paul’s approach to “public relations” – where Cicero adopts something like Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model, or something slightly manipulatively asymmetrical such that he uses his contacts to grow his influence through the appearance of conversation – Paul, as a follower of the “suffering servant” adopts a deliberately asymmetrical approach where he isn’t interested in his own power and influence so much as how we can serve and encourage his ‘public’ while he’s in chains, as a status-renouncing embodiment of the gospel.
Interestingly, and as a final tangent, of sorts regarding the parallel between Paul and Cicero – Cicero published widely, articulating his vision of the ideal theological system, ideal political system, ideal person, ideal virtues, ideal orator and statesman – often championing his own life, which embodied his message, Paul did the same – articulating a theological position – Christianity as the globally significant fulfilment of Judaism, a political system – the ethics of living in this world as a citizen of heaven, an anthropology with Jesus held out as the ideal person, the ‘virtues’ of a life led by the Holy Spirit, and he spends a significant amount of energy defining what it looks like to be an orator of the cross – such that Jesus is the example – but his example can be followed by anybody, not just somebody of Paul’s incredible gifts and abilities.
That, at the end of the day, is the biggest difference between Paul and Cicero as communicators.
Paul isn’t his own ideal. He’s not self-promoting. He’s not seeking his own power and influence. He’s not climbing the social ladder – if anything he’s climbing down it. He’s promoting Jesus.