Lessons from Luther, social media and the reformation

Social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, is seen as the vehicle which is making the Arab Spring and the #Occupy movement possible. The sense is that ideas being expressed online are going “viral”, being shared and re-shared in exponentially explosive fashion, and leaping into our collective consciousness. The massive street protests and the regimes being toppled are the result.

An essay in the Economist points out how the technology of Luther’s day and the novel ability to rapidly diseminate ideas throughout Europe led to the Reformation, the rise of the nation states and our present social models.

It begins by drawing close parallels between the social phenomenon of “liking” and “re-sharing” and the pamphleting of Luther’s day:

“The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.”

More here. (Hat tip to Dan Webster)

The article goes on to point out that the woodcuts and hymns of Luther’s day are the YouTube videos of ours, and represent attempts to use rich multimedia to spread ideas even faster. It argues that the banning and burning of Luther’s and other reformers writings is similar to attempts to block twitter and Facebook (and enact SOPA?) today. But the bans were unable to keep up with the rapid spread of the books that were being churned out of the printing presses.

Do go and read the whole thing. It’s worth the time. (We’ll wait here till you’re done…)

So, what do you think? Fair parallel? If it is, then can we make any inferences from the trajectory of the Reformation to our own day? I’m thinking we won’t see the rise of nations and nation states, but since social media is making it easier to form like-minded groups across borders, could we see a rise in supra-national entities? Like we’re seeing in the forming of multi-national corporations? Would a denomination be such a thing?

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