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How ideas spread in Rome, how they spread today

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  June 28, 2013 09:41 AM

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What makes an idea catch on? These days we might not think immediately of the dedication page of a book. But in ancient Rome, an author’s dedication could go a long way toward determining how many people would end up reading the work, Tom Standage wrote on his personal blog last week.

Standage, who is digital editor at The Economist, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Writing on the Wall,” about the long history of social media. In the blog post he pulls from the book to talk about how the dedication page of a manuscript was one of the key ways ideas were amplified in ancient Rome. The ideal candidate for a dedication, Standage explains, was "famous, influential and somewhat vain," with an "impressive library with plenty of traffic from visiting scholars and philosophers." This person would have been sure to tout the book to his wide circle of friends and might even have had scribes create additional copies. It was one way, pre-printing press, pre-Internet, to get your writing into more hands.

These literary kingmakers would have also, presumably, had to approve of the content of the book. For that reason, this old Roman system of backscratching makes us a little queasy: We want ideas to circulate because they're good, not because they gratify the right person.

One of the initial promises of social media was that it might help ideas succeed on their own -- removing the old gatekeepers, whether Roman aristocrats or publishers, and democratizing how information circulates. But this isn’t quite how it has turned out.

In my own life I had something of a Standage moment recently when I organized a group of English scholars to share their opinions about the “Gatsby” movie for the website The Millions. The post generated a good amount of traffic its first week, but on its ninth day online, readership suddenly doubled. What had happened? The movie's official Facebook page, which has been "liked" by nearly one million fans, linked to the post. Many thousands of readers poured in.

Social media is in fact not especially democratic. The most powerful people and institutions have the most Facebook fans and Twitter followers which means that content that serves their interests is much more likely to show up in your newsfeed. In the case of the Gatsby post, the scholars were mostly positive about the movie -- and it’s hard to imagine that the post would have had nearly the same readership if they’d hated it and thus the movie studio had ignored it. For people in the media, this kind of power sets up a dilemma that's not altogether different from the one authors faced in Cicero's time: the bigger the interests you please, the more likely you are to be read.

This post has been modified from an earlier version.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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