In Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage makes a compelling case for understanding the social media practices of ancient Rome and the web-based social media practices of the modern day as linked in important ways. Standage claims that both practices involve “two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social networks, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source” (Loc 43). Though he doesn’t continue to use these exact terms in his fascinating discussion of the historical development of social media, they underlie one of his boldest and most sweeping arguments: that social media like radio and television marked an historical ‘middle period’ of one-way, non-interactive vertical communication, while the ‘new’ social media afforded by the internet indicate a return to dynamic, horizontal, peer-to-peer interactions.
I think “horizontal” and “vertical” are potentially quite useful terms for thinking about the functions and effects of today’s digital social media practices—with one small caveat: that we don’t limit ourselves by defining these two forms of communication as incompatible or mutually exclusive. That is, Standage seems to view horizontal communication (and its dynamic possibilities) as the defining feature of both ancient Roman and modern social media environments, while downplaying the vertical forms of communication both environments enable(d). What I’d like to suggest is that both environments, and the modern digital one in particular, actually enable complex and almost dizzying combinations of vertical and horizontal communication that complicate the way information is circulated.
For me, one of the most interesting features of new social media is the increasing frequency with which texts and narratives move in the opposite direction of what we might have previously expected. That is, rather than being distributed vertically en masse and then moving horizontally across a smattering of peers through face-to-face or phone conversation, we see that many texts are distributed in exponential peer-to-peer sharing before they are finally picked up, reframed, and redistributed in vertical ways. That is, they “go viral” horizontally before news outlets or other central distributors of information are able to co-opt them.
As an illustration of this ‘backward’ movement from horizontal to vertical: I’m sure most of you have heard of “Don’t tase me, bro!”— if only because the meme has been so persistently recycled online since it emerged following the initial incident in 2007. This was the episode at a John Kerry forum event at the University of Florida, where senior undergraduate Andrew Meyer became agitated that he was denied the ability to ask his question, and after a loud and very public struggle, was tased by the police. Here’s a short clip of the struggle and the line that made Meyer (in)famous. (Original video by Kyle Mitchell, 2007.)
This event had minimal press in attendance; the reason the incident came to such public visibility was a number of attendees who uploaded videos of the scene to YouTube and shared it peer-to-peer. One video reached 7 millions views—quite a bit by the internet standards of 2007. The story raised issues of free speech and excessive force by police, and was quickly thereafter picked up and reported by the mainstream press. The phrase “Don’t tase me, bro!” has since become a well-known trope on the web, and has been transformed endlessly into memes like the one below. Meyer even apparently registered the phrase as a trademark, and tried (unsuccessfully) to publish a book on the coattails of this insta-fame. In any case, it’s clear that Meyer’s narrative developed within a horizontal media sharing environment before it was captured and re-distributed vertically—an interesting early reversal of the expected vertical-to-horizontal pattern that dominated in Standage’s ‘middle period’ of radio and television, before the internet age.
But beyond reversing our temporal expectations for how narratives circulate vertically and horizontally, I think we have started to see evidence that these two forms of communication are converging and playing off each other in more complicated ways. One of the simplest illustrations of the way new social media integrates vertical and horizontal communication is the share + comment maneuver we see so frequently on Facebook. This is where someone shares a story, video, or other kind of text that was composed by a professional writer for vertical, one-way, mass distribution (often from news outlets)—but frames it with their own commentary before sharing it horizontally with peers. Here’s a recent example from my own Facebook newsfeed:
The information and the video itself were produced/compiled by WATE-6 News, an ABC affiliate out of Knoxville, TN—presumably, an example of Standage’s vertical communication from an “impersonal central source.” But in the very act of sharing this with peers, the communication begins to move horizontally. Even more interesting is the framing of the narrative by my friend: he sets his peer readers up to process the “vertical” information through his personal (political) lens.
So fine: we’ve got a source that was once distributed vertically and now begins to distribute horizontally. But it’s actually even more complicated than that if we look closely: the original video that was packaged by the news source was shot by some Joe Shmo in his car, and was shared peer-to-peer until it “went viral” and was picked up by the news outlet. And what happens if someone shares this video without adding their own commentary? With a link directly to the original, isn’t it essentially the same as going directly to the “impersonal central source”? Or perhaps not, since in the very act of sharing, the person is framing the narrative for his/her peers in the context of assumed approbation or disapproval? In these messy layers of vertical and horizontal communication, which are not even easily defined in temporal terms (first vertical, then horizontal, etc.), lies a peculiarly modern pattern of communication—one in which it is often not easy to draw straight lines, identify a source, or define authorship.
Okay, I didn’t get around to making the case for this convergence of vertical/horizontal communication in ancient Rome. Maybe we can talk about this in class, if anyone is interested?