Writing about talking about reading Writing On The Wall: a meta-review

If you’d asked me two months ago who I’d have around for dinner in one of those fantasy dinner guest arrangements, I’d have said, listed chronologically:

  • Solomon
  • Cicero
  • Jesus
  • Paul
  • Augustine
  • Luther
  • Marshall McLuhan

While I reckon that’d be a pretty interesting group of guests, I realise it isn’t the sort of group that appeals to everybody. They appeal to me because they are people, communicators in fact, who loomed large in my Masters project. Which was a look at how communication mediums and technology have been harnessed by Christians (and their Jewish predecessors) to communicate to people about God. You can read my project here to see where I went – it informs my excitement about this new book.

After this week, I think I’d squeeze in an extra dinner guest. Tom Standage. Eight is a better number for dinner anyway.

I’d invite him as much for his sake as for mine – because having read his new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, I suspect his list of dinner guests would be pretty similar to mine. But I also reckon he’s a pretty fascinating thinker – his other books include telling the story of world history through food and drink, and he’s an editor at The Economist. And we all know journalists make the best dinner guests…

A little preamble to explain my excitement about this book

You might have caught this post last week, featuring a presentation Tom Standage made at a TEDx about Cicero and social media, where I talked about how Paul was a pretty efficient user of social media too.

Cicero is a pretty fascinating guy – and, for what it’s worth, in my project I argue that he was pretty influential, directly, on how Paul approached communication, especially oratory, as a Christian. I think his letters to the Corinthian church – a city enamoured with sophistic oratory (all flash, no substance) draw from Cicero’s writings about oratory to critique the Corinthian’s buying into Sophistic standards by suggesting that Jesus was the ideal orator who should be imitated. There’s another link between Paul and Cicero – the city of Tarsus. The capital of Cilicia.

Very few people have bothered to make any connection between Paul and Cicero – because most modern Biblical scholars assume that Paul was an idiot. Because he calls himself one (quite literally – it’s the Greek word he uses in 2 Corinthians 11:6). But there are incredible overlaps in the terminology they use, in their critique of other forms of oratory, their emphasis and use of ethos and character in persuasion, and in the position they implicitly or explicitly adopt towards the Roman Empire. There’s a huge similarity in their communication praxis. And one thing modern Biblical scholars fail to explain is how Paul, if he’s an idiot, managed to be one of the most effective communicators of all time…

So it was exciting to me that Writing on the Wall opened with…

In July 51 B.C. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor.

He gets to Paul, he talks about Luther (in fact, it was an article he wrote about Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation, that forms part of this book, that inspired a significant part of my project). The book offers a fascinating approach to the use of media through history by different groups or in support of different causes – it is massively useful for people who want to think about how they might participate in spreading any sort of message (ie Christianity), and it’s an interesting look at how the world works. I’m not just saying this because it meshes, pretty substantially, with what I already thought… Standage is a pretty compelling storyteller, and has weaved some incredible threads through history together into a rich picture of the way media works – and the way people work with media. There’s lots to learn, and a fair bit to digest. I like to highlight interesting passages as I read on my kindle, and I refer back to my highlighted passages more than the book itself – this book was more highlight than text when I finished.

I mentioned Marshall McLuhan as one of my dinner guests – he’s a guy a lot of media studies people now hold up as some sort of oracle, because he, somewhat like a horoscope (in that he was so general he couldn’t fail) – predicted the Internet and social media (the “Global Village”) before its time. I like McLuhan mostly because he makes some nice quasi-theological (or actually theological at times) observations about the impact of media on its users, and the importance of harnessing new, complementary, mediums for advancing a message.

He said, at one point:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The empires that survive or thrive, through history – are those that figure out how to use these mediums. This is powerfully demonstrated in Writing On The Wall – not just at the “empire” level, but at the level of communicating ideas. McLuhan drew largely on a book called Communication and Empire by Harold Innis, which is a profoundly interesting companion to Writing on the Wall (and is available in full from Project Gutenberg).

Standage’s treatment of social media throughout the ages features Cicero, Paul and early Christianity, seditious and salacious poetry in the British court, the independence movement in the United States, the importance of coffee houses in the developing, fermenting, and sharing of ideas, and the rise of pamphlets, journals and newspapers, then the Internet – it tracks the fascinating movement from media being the voice of the people, to people being the commodity sold by centralised media, to advertisers. It’s profoundly useful, and very interesting.

You should read it.

Reading as conversation: what really excited me about reading this book

But what really excited me about reading this book – was the way social media augmented the reading process. There’s quite a bit of stuff written out there about how social media is changing the way we read and experience texts. An example would be Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Which spends a significant amount of time quoting McLuhan.

And it’s true. Often these are quite pessimistic – they tend to lament the halcyon days of long attention spans, and being cloistered somewhere with a hard copy book. Interestingly – Standage shows in Writing On The Wall that the introduction of every new medium sees the same old criticisms rehashed (and this idea isn’t all that new – there’s even an XKCD comic about this, and I wrote about it somewhere)…

Enthusiasm for coffee houses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented, like critics of social media today, that coffee houses were distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful. – Writing On The Wall

I think most of us are a little bit inconsistent in our thinking here – and we’re happy to be inconsistent. Even early adopters. A nice example of this can be found in two essays by Nicholson Baker, published in the same book of essays – The Way the World Works: Essays – a significant number of essays in this book (also a great read) are devoted to Baker’s attempts to conserve physical media – particularly Newspapers, but also old library books, one essay is about how to read a book. A tactile book. And yet, he also writes and essay celebrating Wikipedia, talking about his addiction to editing and contributing to the online encyclopedia. He’s probably the champion of preserving physical media – he may be the closest thing to a literary luddite – and yet, he writes a celebration of the site that killed the printed Encyclopedia. He also writes a celebration of reading on the iPhone (while writing off the original Kindle).

Anyway. McLuhan, and Carr are right. New mediums change the way we experience texts, and life. And I think this is exciting (which puts me firmly in the optimist camp when it comes to this debate). Baker is right – new mediums owe a profound debt, that we shouldn’t forget, to old mediums. But Standage has something more to add – the more things change, the more they stay the same – experiencing texts has almost always been a social activity. When the social element is removed from the communication equation – namely, when participants become the product, not the audience – something is missing in how media is being produced. This missing “social” aspect is something essential to communication. Why write something down if it’s not to be transmitted to, and experienced by somebody else? An audience. Communication is inherently social. Social media is, at this point, simply helping a text reaching its natural end. Faster. With great efficiency.

So texts should be being produced to be shared and discussed. And social media – as we currently know it – survives and thrives when this happens.

So, because I was already excited about the book’s material, and had already put a fair amount of thought into the subject matter, I thought why not read this book as though it’s a conversation with Tom Standage. And why not make it one. He’s on Twitter. I’m on Twitter.

He’d even already responded to a couple of things I’d tweeted him while anticipating Writing On The Wall’s release.

I read Writing On The Wall as an ebook, on my iPad, in the Kindle app. And as I read, when I found things that excited me, or had questions, I tweeted @tomstandage. He seems like the kind of guy you’d want at a dinner party. So he tweeted back.

And this is what excited me most about reading Writing On The Wall. It’s what excites me about social media being a tool that breaks down distance, and allows people who share interests to discuss things from opposite points on the globe. Sure – you’ve always been able, in a round about way, to write to an author. To send fan mail. To ask questions. To publish in response – but never like we’ve been able to now.

This exercise, where I’m publishing a review of a book on my blog, this is the continuation of a book promotion strategy that began in ancient Rome – but the ease with which this will be shared by people who are interested, and the link this contains to a place where you can buy the ebook, and start reading it right now. That’s amazing. Time and space have truly collapsed.

The distance between author and reader has collapsed. I started tweeting Tom about this book the day it was released. The day I started reading it. I tweeted him as I read it. Day after day. We chased tangents. Shared our passion for Cicero. And the content of the book – while excellent when contained in the book – came alive a little more as I asked questions, and received answers. I was even able to share a quote from Luther, one of his letters, that given the response, seemed new to Tom. I’ve even just started calling him “Tom” in this paragraph – such is the added familiarity or breakdown in formality this experience created. I’m not reviewing this book as someone with an academic interest in the book – though I have that (and the extensive bibliography at the end of the book was pretty exciting to me). I’m reviewing it as a guy who feels like he spent the week talking to another person. The author. And that is something. Something different. Something exciting. For me it demonstrated the substantial premise of the book better than the content itself – we people are wired to be social, and the networks we create or in which we function as nodes, and the ‘media’ that brings such nodes together work best when medium, message, and participants come together in harmony (where medium and message are in sync) and without impediment.

Talking about reading Writing On The Wall

I’ll understand if you’re already over this post – but before you check out, I do want to thank Tom for talking to me (via Twitter). He seems like a really nice guy. And Tom – if you’re reading – feel free to take me up on the dinner offer. The other guys are dead though (except for Jesus, but he’s elsewhere). So I think it’ll just be you and me.

So here are some highlights from our conversation. Starting when I read a post on his blog about Cicero… Before I started reading the book – because social media, in this case, actually extended the experiencing of the book beyond the actual reading of the book. Which again, serves to demonstrate the principle in question – and is another nice parallel to Cicero’s approach to promoting books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is when I wrote the post about Paul as a social media pioneer – ignorant of what was in Writing On The Wall about Paul…

 

 

And here’s where I actually started reading the book.

 

 

 

 

Here’s where I asked Tom a question about something not in the book, which I reckon is a nice piece of support for his argument (and where my project had gone a little more – the use of imagery to complement text/spoken stuff by providing visual representations of “ethos”)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We talked a little bit about Machiavelli, Cicero’s brother’s guide to winning elections, and Marhsall McLuhan (he’s less of a fan than I am) – but I’m trying not to post everything. As you can see, he was quite generous with his time, and patient with a young punk from Australia lobbing him just about everything that sprang to mind while reading his book…

 

 

 

 

And this is where it gets more meta. Because I was tweeting him as I wrote this review…

The commonplace book features in Writing On The Wall…

 

 

There’s lots to love about Writing On The Wall, and every criticism I had, or that I anticipated making, as I read was tied up as a loose end or answered by the bibliography. There were times that I wanted to dig deeper or find out a source – these times are more than adequately addressed by the end of the book. And if you’ve got more questions, you can always do what I did – and ask the author. Because that’s a social reading experience – and medium and message wouldn’t add up like they do in this case if @tomstandage was an anti-social type.

Curiosity rocks the social media world

Twitter is making this mission to mars extra fun.

First, Curiosity has been tweeting with a great blend of personality and substance. NASA’s social media team are doing a great job. Apologies if this doesn’t show up nicely in the RSS, I’m going to use the new WordPress embed tweet function for the majority of this post…

It has made the Curiosity mission to Mars lots of fun, and shows some of the benefits of doing social media well. And its spawned a few fun spin offs.

Like today. As Curiosity announced it was about to employ its rock zapping laser for the first time on a humble rock named N165. N165 soon had its own Twitter account.

Here’s the science behind the story of this poor rock on Mars.

 

Curiouser and Curiouser

This Mars thing is pretty cool. We listened to the landing on the radio today, while driving through a massive tunnel that goes under the Brisbane River, and under a bunch of Brisbane suburbs. These are fun times we live in.

It’s amazing that it worked. Really.

You can follow the Curiosity Rover on Twitter.

Here’s a photo of Mars the rover tweeted an hour ago.

A funny thing happened yesterday: how @CollectiveShout won Twitter (and me)

Anti-sexploitation lobby group Collective Shout does some smart, and necessary work, opposing the degradation of society. They’re like the ACL, only without “Christian” in their name, so not as cringeworthy. And they’re more focused.

Collective Shout cares about such things as logos.

This is theirs.

This is the flag adopted by Greendale Community College in Community.

And this is the explanation of the flag, offered in the show.

I can’t look at the Collective Shout logo without being influenced by Community. So I thought I’d be funny. And I dug up that clip from YouTube and tweeted:

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much in response. I was, after all, stirring the pot a little, and mostly just showing off pop culture chops… But I got one. And it was snappy, relevant, and put me right in my place. It was from a real person. They weren’t just toeing a party line.

There were a couple more tweets exchanged following this – but I left way more impressed with Collective Shout than I planned to be, this, people, is how you use social media – they actually do a great job on the social media awareness/activism front, so it doesn’t surprise me that they’ve got someone behind the keyboard who is savvy and engaged enough to produce this sort of response to pseudo-criticism.

#QantasLuxury: How to manage the fallout

This morning around 220 media outlets have covered the #qantasluxury debacle. It’s also certainly given social media and PR bloggers something to write about. If you buy the “all publicity is good publicity” line – then the campaign was a success.


Image Credit: @Kellulz, via The Australian

But you shouldn’t buy that line… because it’s dumb. The good thing about media coverage in traditional media outlets is that they’ll typically be interested in objectivity – which for them means getting both sides of the story (though in many of the cases below, this hasn’t happened).

Which means talking to Qantas. Which means that all publicity represents an opportunity to promote your brand.

A better phrasing of the rule is that “All publicity is only as good as you make it,” or “Good publicity promotes your brand.”

And while its possible that Qantas has strategically immolated itself on Twitter so that it can get this opportunity, that seems a little unlikely. Every story opens by bagging out the campaign. It wasn’t a well thought out move on the airline’s part.

Here’s a sampling of responses…

The Age – Qantas makes a hash of tweet campaign
The Age – Qantas Luxury – not having to face flak
The Australian (Media Blog) – Qantas Twitter Fiasco Launches Spoofs
Courier Mail – Qantas in First Class Twitter Fail
Courier Mail – Miffed passengers take tweet revenge
Reuters – Epic Fail for Qantas Twitter Competition
NineMSN (who clearly don’t understand apostrophes and words ending with s) – Qantas’s Epic PR Fail
The Hindustan Times – Qantas does a PR self goal dive
The Hong Kong Standard – Qantas spirals into PR infamy
The Mirror – UK – Qantas twitter hashtag campaign backfires as unhappy customers hijack it

The Reuters story is especially important, because it feeds content to newsrooms all over the globe – and that was bad for Qantas, because they haven’t got any comments from the airline. PR disaster management 101 is getting your messages across to the newswires.

What these stories are reporting is the tongue in cheek quip that Qantas fired back in response to the flood of responses – and while the quip kind of worked on Twitter, when it runs in a news story it just makes you look dumb. There’s a PR rule about never saying anything on camera you don’t want taken out of context… it works on social media too.

“But Qantas put on a brave face, taking to Twitter again to quip on Tuesday, “at this rate our #QantasLuxury competition is going to take years to judge.”

Or

“Qantas tried to laugh off the Twitter backlash later in the day, tweeting that it would take some time to judge the competition as the responses flooded in at a rate of 20 a minute.”

That doesn’t look like a company that is taking this crisis seriously.

But they are handling the fallout as best they can. When they get to speak that is… This line isn’t bad:

“A large number of our customers were disrupted and inconvenienced by the recent industrial action and fleet grounding. However, services have returned to normal and our customers can book flights with absolute confidence that they will not be disrupted by industrial action.”

That’s great. If they get that message, for free, into hundreds of stories it’s at least a silver lining.

Sadly it came after a few lines defending the campaign, and the prize… these aren’t great lines, because they show just how much Qantas doesn’t really get the whole social media thing, and gives a bit of insight into why this was botched… and a few media outlines are just running these quotes, not the paragraph above.

“We receive positive feedback from customers via social media about the Qantas premium inflight products. Over the past 12 months we have conducted a number of competitions for customers, fans and followers on our Twitter feed (@qantasairways), giving away these products,” the spokeswoman said.

“We launched the #qantasluxury competition as part of our ongoing social media strategy. The competition is giving away Qantas First Class pyjamas and amenity kits and a number of people have legitimately entered the competition.”

There’s no humility there. No acknowledgment that they got this massively wrong. Saying “a number” is the most deliberately vague statement ever issued, and at this point the positive entries in the competition are doubtless from professional competition enterers, or the families of Qantas board members.

Perhaps the funniest thing is that this move comes just two days after Qantas hired four full time social media people to manage the online fallout following the lockout.

A Twitter tribute to Steve Jobs

People are saying that Steve Jobs is our John Lennon. Or something. I can sort of see it. But cancer isn’t a gunpoint assassination. And technology isn’t music. Anyway. Watching the outpouring of grief on social networks surrounding the death of this admittedly pretty amazing guy has been pretty culturally revealing. Christians fall into a few camps – some have expressed hope that Jobs found Jesus, some have pointed out that a life lived for success on this earth is hollow, I did both. Some have thanked Jobs for the impact his products had on their ability to do ministry. I don’t think the Westboro Baptists are Christians. But they announced via iPhone on Twitter, that they’d be protesting Jobs’ funeral because he had a man made platform and didn’t acknowledge God, and he promoted immorality. Or some rubbish like that, pretty much ignoring any positive moral contribution Jobs may have been responsible for with his long term opposition to pornography.

Anyway. Those reactions are neither here nor there, so far as this post is concerned. Apparently more people tweeted about Jobs than about any other celebrity who has died in the Internet age. The tweets came faster, and lasted longer… Twitter made this graphic, posted on Flickr, using tweets about Jobs from yesterday, as their tribute. And I think it’s an interesting use of data.

#thankyousteve

If you check it out in its original size you can read the tweets.

Social Media Propaganda: Because the Internet needs you

The social media war is heating up. Soon Google Plus, Facebook, and Twitter will be doing just about anything to get you on board. I’m on all three. And I’ve got to say, for the record, that the number of conversations on each platform about the other platforms is getting a little out of hand.

Anyway. These posters might help you decide.


They’re for sale as posters on Etsy.

How to confuse your elderly relatives by the power of the internet

A friend of mine allegedly taught her little brother that the correct name for “green” was “yellow”. That sounds cruel. And it is (it’s also funny). Similarly, this guy told his 81 year old dad that Twitter is Google. Confused? So is he.

You can follow his tweets and provide him with answers here.

Some of the latest:

 

Norman N.
oldmansearch Norman N.

famous whales
Norman N.
oldmansearch Norman N.

joanna massee birthday
Norman N.
oldmansearch Norman N.

recipe for one porkchop
Norman N.
oldmansearch Norman N.

brown grass along driveway
Norman N.
oldmansearch Norman N.

does jay leno live on his set?

Via Gizmodo (this one has been coming for a while).

Twitter and covert military operations

And the prize for live-tweeting the demise of Osama, and thus, once again, demonstrating that there’s nothing like Twitter for covering this sort of event goes to…

ReallyVirtual

His tweet stream since the event is pretty fascinating – showing how quickly the coverage of these events now moves from the coverage of the event to the coverage of the coverage.

Via The Daily What.

John Piper ruins Twitter again…

The impetus for my Mark Driscoll Ruined Facebook post was a post from elsewhere (linked in that one) suggesting that John Piper’s incredibleness had ruined Twitter because he spawned so many imitators.

I’m hoping this tweet doesn’t get repeated too much. There are some Bible verses that just aren’t really cut out for pulling out of context and moralising:

A collection of web 2.0 bits and bobs…

Mikey posted a bunch of reflections on the web and ministry the other day in a stream of consciousness bullet point diatribe. They’re tips that are worth reading – and a good perspective from somebody who is in ministry and thinking about how technology can be used as a platform for the gospel and for building relationships.

Blogs are definitely different now Part 1

Blogs are definitely changing now Part 2

Blogs are definitely changing Part 3

Blogs are definitely changing Part 4

Blogs are definitely changing Part 5

Once you’ve finished reading those and you’re all depressed about the internet and stuff…

I’ve recently started using Twitter heaps more. It seemed all I needed was a better app on my iPhone and the new Mac app. You can follow me @nm_campbell if you like. Let me know if you’re a Twit too.

I’m also getting close to having 100 fans on Facebook. Which is cool. I’ve started using that Facebook page to share links that I maybe once upon a time would have posted here (and possibly eventually will). These links appear on the top right of the blog proper, so if you’re a feed reader I suggest you join the masses and “like” St. Eutychus.

If you are a feed reader you might have noticed a bunch of new links on the bottom of feed items – these come courtesy of feedburner – you can now click a few different links to share stuff you like where you like. Isn’t that exciting. I like it when people share the stuff I’ve found. It somehow legitimises the time I waste on the Internet. So please do it.

And, I’ve installed a theme that I paid for (called Standard Theme) on my coffee blog and Venn Theology. I’m trying to decide whether or not to install it here too. Check them out. Especially my coffee blog – thebeanstalker.com. I’m pretty happy with it.

That is all.