Human communication history can be divided based on the modes of sensibilities their media made available to them. There were three distinct periods according to Marshall McLuhan.
The first era was the oral tradition. People used the kind, sound, and light, or simple symbols and graphics to convey information. It was the budding state of the word. It was an era where dissemination of information only served the purpose of survive. The information content was small and scattered, and the structure of the expression was unordered. The oral communication phase lasted tens of thousands to one hundred thousands of years.
Copy of Ur-Nammu’s law from Middle Eastern texts up to 5,000 years old. image from dailymail.co.uk
The second era is the age of literacy. This period can be further divided into three parts which consist of , pictograms(written symbols), phonetic alphabet, and typography, which the last one is the printing press. (McLuhan,1962) It includes the period from the invention of writing to the discovery of electricity and its usage in the form of the telegraph.
The application of the text was significant to the development of dissemination of the information because, with text, information could be recorded. As a result, information could spread without the constraints of physical space and time. Information transmission could last longer and reach farther. This was when newspaper started to emerge. Handwritten communication played an important role in ancient society. At that time, the forms of news distribution were broadly divided into two categories: the official communiqué for the dissemination of political and military information, and the newsletters mostly for personal information dissemination in aristocratic society. In the later stage of handwritten communication, handwritten tabloids emerged in Venice. During Renaissance and the development of the market economy, people craved for information due to their ideological needs and commercial needs. Handwritten tabloids of Venice became the culmination of news media in the Middle Ages of Europe, which formed the initial concept of news. However, this was yet not the starting point for modern journalism. For modern news, it required a systematic carrier, says the combination of newspapers and printing technology.
Printing technology, the invention and the use of Western typography, was one of the key milestones in the history of human communication. Gutenberg combined the technology of manufacturing of paper, development of ink, and woodblock printing. The mechanical movable type printing technology along with other printing technology quickly spread through Europe. It had led to a huge increase in printing activities. People reproduced and spread information widely and rapidly. Typographical text production had finally led to the first printing press Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien from Germany(Encyclopædia Britannica,2017).
Even though the paper was first invented by China (Innis,1972), relative to the agriculture society of China, Europe’s market economy had a greater demand for information. In short, the modern journalism was bornin Europe under the background of The Age of Discovery, trade boom of European, and social instability made people desperate for timely information. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, due to the rapid economic growth and population density, the need of information that focused on different categories had led to the emergence of commercial newspapers (mercantile sheets) after the political newspapers, which also included Penny Press and quality newspapers.
The newspaper was one of the oldest tools for communication. It was revolutionary since it was one of the two communication tools (the other one is postal communication) that exist from the BC era (59BC) and still exist now.
The third communication era is the electronic communications that were enabled by the electric flow of information. It was a period from the first use of the telegraph in 1844 to the present. By the beginning of the 20th century, electronic transmission from radio and television to the Internet, which is what we called Information Age. Until now, electronic communications had existed about 70 to 80 years old. Comparing with previous stages of communications, it had the characteristics of being very dependent on technological conditions of the society. Also, it is remarkable that this time, the stage of electronic communication, the spread of information encompassed people all over the world. Radio and television had changed people’s use of idle time, while the Internet is more subversive to change the entire media ecology. Internet had achieved the integrations of a variety of media. It is a kind of information “platform.” It has the function of exchange conversions in various forms of information.
The printing press was definitely revolutionary. Although many argued that printing press and the boom of newspaper development is the product of the society needs during the multiple revolutions, it was unarguable that printing press played a key role in enabling revolutions to happen. Elizabeth Eisenstein studied the impact of the printing press in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. She emphasized that printing press was much more than just contributed in weakening the power of the medieval church. However, it had changed the appearance and state of the world: print caused the Reformation. The printing press let people held a massive information in hand at one time which had never happened before. The chaos of information took time to sort out, yet the sorting out of information is how it had the impact towards each of the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution. People developed their new theology since printing technology enable Scientific data collection, and they were able to spread them to a different culture in different geographic locations in a different language.
When it comes to the Digital Age where people nowadays are so used to the online-social-mobile communication technologies, people starts to raise a question: Is online social media platform doing a better job for people to fight against authorities or other revolutions?
Ahlqvist (2008) defined that Social-network as the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, exchange and comment contents among themselves in virtual communities and networks. The nature of the social network is that it is many-to-many while comparing that with printing press’s one-to-many effects, as what was said by Michael Hauben, it enabled people with no power to get their voice out. The characteristic of internet lies on that it is a space, a platform, allows people to connect and to communicate equally. It eliminates physical, economic, social, educational gaps between people. Internet down pass the power originally held by a large corporation (media, government, businesses, etc.). Due to the nature of that printing press in many countries, it is a power held by the government or large business cooperation, when there are revolutionary events, which is most likely to be a large protest about anti-authoritarian, it is being censored. However, for online-social-communication, the cost of distribution is almost free (marginal cost is zero), it massively eliminates the barriers of the entrance to be a news distributors. In fact, everyone with a computer that can link to the internet is an information distributor and can provide information. The user of social media platform changes themselves from a news receiver to a news contributor. The reader has more choice on what to read, and they are all free. Newspapers were no longer able to capture reader’s attention or feed the needs of the readers. In this sense, it seems that social networks had enabled the true “freedom of speech” and can replace the printing press in the sense that it can be a better watchdog that cost less.
The online social mobile communication is not just a communication tool, but it is the accelerator and amplifier that enable the social movement to turn bigger. It can unleash attention globally. It gives people hopes of success by empowering people with the ideas to get their words out.
Demonstrators of the Turkey Gezi Park had proved how useful social media is. While CNN Turkey was playing penguin documentaries, the largest demonstration against the government ever was taking place at the same time. Social media played an important role in organizing the protesters, tips for how to survive the protests; news updates of Gezi Park. They consider social media as a new peaceful tool to fight against authority. (Ece Güner,2016)
However, the easier and lower price of reaching out to information and production of information also means the overflow of the low quality of information. Social media is a platform that original designs for expression ideas and thought but not serious new. Political information on a platform originally design for entertainment, it is easier but not best suit. There are no third party filtering, no fact-checking, and no editorial judgment for this social media user-generated news. Social media is definitely a good place for propaganda, as mentioned by Merrill, Lee & Friedlander in1990 about the frequently used propaganda technique can be seen everywhere in social media: creation of stereotypes; presentation of opinion as fact; speaking through sources; biased attribution; information selection; news management; guerrillas ; freedom fighters; vague authority; using words like “many people” or “most people” ; selective factuality; one-person-cross-section; the “not available” ploy that often used in the end of the reports.
Looking into 2016’s presidential election, the 20 top read false stories from hoax sites had generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook and had surpassed the popular mainstream news stories (Silverman,2016). The top two fake news was about Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, and a hoax site fake about the pope endorsed Trump. New York Time achieved a dramatic rate of growth on their subscription , 10 times, the same period one year ago after Trump won the election (Belvedere, 2016）.
While online social mobile communication helps the social movement to grow in a less hard way, it is overflowing with low-quality information also diminishing the trustworthiness of it. People slowly realize the cost of free and easy news. Printing press would still play the main role in the development of society and during upheaval period. The freedom of speech and citizen journalist in the online community would play a role that can leverage the agenda settings of the printing press, but because of the nature of entertainment of the platform, it could never replace printing press.
Silverman, Craig and Jeremy Singer-Vine. (2016). “Most Americans Who See Fake News Believe It, New Survey Says.” BuzzFeed News
Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.
Marshall McLuhan.(1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
Selin Ece Güner, St.(2016) The impact of social media on political change: Gezi protests in Turkey. Edwards University Domestic Policy, Political Analysi
H. A. Innis, (1972) Empire And Communications. University of Toronto Press
John Calhoun Merrill, John Lee, Edward Jay Friedlander,(1990) Modern Mass Media, Harper & Row
Matthew J. Belvedere, (2016) New York Times subscription growth soars tenfold, adding 132,000, after Trump’s win, CNBC News