Martin Luther and the Viral Superstars
5 pioneers of social media, from before social media was an annoying buzzword.
Before PSY blew up YouTube, before @Horse_ebooks became a Twitter superstar, even before the world discovered LOLcats, there was the apostle Paul — early Christian missionary, eventual saint and, it turns out, a pioneer of viral media.
Today, we think of social media as a uniquely modern, uniquely digital phenomenon, one that only took off in the last decade — really in just the last five years. In fact, today’s bloggers and tweeters are heirs to a surprisingly deep and rich tradition that began with the Romans 2,000 years ago, helped cause the split within the Catholic Church, aided the U.S. fight for independence, and prepared the way for the French Revolution.
Put down the iPad, my children, and gather round. Here are five historical pioneers of social media — figures who went viral long before the Internet.
1. The Apostle Paul
Paul of Tarsus was the most adroit user of the Roman social-media system, harnessing it to amass followers and bind together the scattered communities of the early Christian church, and promote his ideas on how the church should develop. Written on papyrus rolls in the 1st century AD, his open letters — or epistles, as we now know them in their New Testament form — were addressed to specific churches (the Book of Romans is a letter to the church in Rome, for example, and Corinthians is a letter to the church in Corinth) but were clearly intended for wider distribution, like a Tumblr post sent out into the world to be blogged and reblogged. Initially, church leaders would read them out to the members of their congregation. But Paul also expected recipient churches to copy and share his letters with other churches nearby. As he wrote in his letter to the Colossians: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” Copies of the letters rippled across Paul’s network of churches, so that they each ended up with a complete collection. Readings from Paul’s letters became a part of Christian worship, and they eventually came to be seen as scripture by the early church, whose leaders incorporated them into the New Testament.
In its early years, Christianity consisted of rival movements whose members disagreed over the meaning of Christ’s teachings and his intended audience for them. Paul used social media to ensure that his view prevailed, cementing the establishment of the Christian church as a religion open to all, not just to Jews. Such is his influence that his letters are still read out in churches all over the world today — a striking testament to the power of social distribution.
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2. Martin Luther
Social media helped Paul build a church; in the hands of Martin Luther, an obscure theologian in the German town of Wittenberg, it helped to split Western Christianity.
Luther hadn’t expected his “95 Theses” — a handwritten list of theological challenges to the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, which he proposed as topics of debate in 1517 — to spread as quickly as it did. Manuscript copies of his pioneering listicle passed from hand to hand at first, but then printers got hold of it, accelerating its spread and making it the talk of Germany within two weeks, and of Western Europe in four. Luther realized he could use this new technology, invented a few decades earlier by Johannes Gutenberg, to his further advantage.
He followed up with a series of pamphlets written in vernacular German, giving the text of each to a printer in his home town and waiting for it to ripple to the next town, and the next, through repeated reprinting (akin, you could say, to retweeting). Millions of copies of his pamphlets spread like wildfire throughout Europe between 1517 and 1527 as readers shared and recommended them to their friends, who then sought out their own copies. Thanks to the “marvellous, new and subtle art, the art of printing,” one of Luther’s contemporaries later noted, “each man became eager for knowledge, not without feeling a sense of amazement at his former blindness.” This posed a dilemma for the Catholic Church, which was initially reluctant to respond with pamphlets of its own, because doing so would be an admission that theological matters were open to debate. The extraordinary popularity of Luther’s pamphlets signaled to him, and to his readers, the breadth of support for his views — just as social media revealed the extent of anti-government feeling in Egypt and Tunisia, a phenomenon that modern media scholars call “synchronization of opinion.” Luther’s message went viral, and the result was the Reformation.
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3. John Harington
Today, using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to improve your “personal brand” is social media 101. But it was Elizabethan courtier John Harington who, in the 16th century, pioneered the use of social media for self-promotion (though today he is better known as the inventor of the flushing toilet).
The son of a poet and an attendant to Elizabeth I, he was one of the childless queen’s 102 godchildren. He first appeared at court at age 21 and quickly made a name for himself with his snarky epigrams. Satirical and daring in their humor, the chief purpose of these short, snappy messages (today, they’d fit neatly into a tweet) was to advertise the dazzling intellect of their author and advance his career. He became known as the queen’s “saucy godson” for quips like this one: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” He even dared to criticize the queen’s father, Henry VIII, for his unfortunate habit of having his wives beheaded. In one of his epigrams, a noblewoman receives an invitation to marry the king, but declines:
“…I greatly thank the king your master,
And would (such love in me his fame hath bred)
My body venture so: but not my head.”
His quips were eagerly whispered from one courtier to another and circulated in written form within the court and beyond. Harington himself gave manuscripts of his collected epigrams to close friends and family members. He liked to play the part of the wise fool, jesting on the sidelines of Elizabeth’s court and wrapping up his moral and political barbs in apparently harmless witticisms — their true meaning only apparent once the laughter had subsided. For Harington and his contemporaries, writing poetry was a way to establish a reputation and win a place at court. Poetry in the Elizabethan court could be used to ask for advancement or, in the event of falling from favor, to apologize for misdeeds. Harington’s poetry convinced the queen of his cleverness, and she eventually gave him official duties to perform as a courtier, tutor and military observer. After a checkered career in which he often got into trouble for overstepping the mark, he eventually ended up with a knighthood.
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4. Thomas Paine
During the 18th century, the American colonies established an increasingly efficient media-sharing system. Local newspapers, with a circulation of a few hundred at best, did not rely on journalists for stories, but instead reprinted letters, speeches, and pamphlets supplied by their readers, and thus provided a shared, social platform through which people could share and discuss their views with others. (Think of it as Gawker or SBNation.) As the reliability and frequency of the postal service improved, it allowed free exchange by post of newspapers both within and between colonies. This allowed noteworthy letters and pamphlets to reach a wide audience as they were printed in one newspaper and then copied and reprinted by others.
As tensions grew with the government in London, several authors wrote letters or pamphlets that lit up this colonial media network, including John Dickinson’s anonymous “Letters from a Farmer” and John Adams’s writings under the pen name “Novanglus.” But most successful of all at exploiting this network was Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant to the colonies who articulated the case for independence more clearly and forcefully than anyone had done before. His pamphlet, “Common Sense,” quickly rippled through the colonies, shared at first among the political elite, who excitedly recommended it to each other, and then widely reprinted and excerpted in local papers. It was unquestionably the most popular and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, eventually selling more than 250,000 copies and making Paine the world’s bestselling author. In another example of synchronization of opinion, its popularity revealed to the colonists the breadth of support for independence. Many years later, John Adams wrote disapprovingly to Thomas Jefferson that “history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine.” That is an exaggeration, but not much of one.
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5. Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux
One of the jobs of the count of Maurepas, a senior official in charge of the Paris police in the 1740s, was to monitor closely what was being said about King Louis XV in satirical rhymes, called libelles, which circulated in salons, cafes, markets, and taverns. As they passed from person to person, whether orally or written on small scraps of paper, these ditties would be modified and reworked, with new verses added or names changed. Such poems could easily be updated in response to the news, a process of collective authorship that assimilated and encapsulated public opinion. Maurepas collected these poems through a network of informers, so that he could monitor public opinion on the king’s behalf, tracking which courtiers were being satirized and collecting the latest rumors about the royal family. As with modern Internet censorship in China, the authorities would intervene if someone went too far.
On occasion, Maurepas and other courtiers would also write rhymes of their own to try to influence public opinion, letting them circulate at court and then filter out via salons and cafes to society at large. One such rhyme led to Maurepas’s dismissal in 1749, when it became apparent that he was the author. It insulted the king’s mistress, who was unpopular among his faction at court. Perhaps not unlike a certain former White House staffer, Maurepas had sought to exploit the media system to his own advantage, but instead brought about his own downfall. The power of the rhymes, however, remained intact: The relentless criticism of the libelles steadily corroded respect for the monarchy, undermined the king’s authority, and paved the way for the French Revolution.
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And then came the Dark Ages. Starting in the mid-19th century, everything changed. The advent of the steam-powered printing press, followed in the 20th century by radio and television, made possible what we now call mass media (and what conventional wisdom thinks of as traditional media). These new technologies of mass dissemination could supply information directly to large numbers of people with unprecedented speed and efficiency, but their high cost meant that control of the flow of information became concentrated into the hands of a select few. The delivery of information became a one-way, centralized broadcast, overshadowing the tradition of two-way, conversational and social distribution that had come before.
It is only in recent years that the Internet has made it possible to reach a large audience at low cost, allowing social distribution to re-emerge from the shadow of mass media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age is thus both a profound shift — and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.
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