Have you been to Speakers’ Corner on the Northeast point of Hyde Park? If you haven’t I would recommend visiting and spending an hour or so watching and listening. Speakers’ Corner is where anyone, who is anyone, can stand on a soapbox and speak their mind on any topic that takes their fancy. A Victorian version of the modern podcast, but only live. Another example of an early form of social media was pamphleting. The so-called pamphleting wars started in the 1600s shortly after the printing press. Individuals and Societies used pamphleting as a means of getting their message to people on the streets. Popular pamphleteers, dare I say influencers, were Daniel Defoe, Thomas Hobbes, Jonathan Swift, John Milton, and Samuel Pepys.
I came across pamphleting when I was preparing the James Parkinson’s memorial day and discovered that Parkinson used pamphleting as means to run political campaigns. Interestingly, Parkinson wrote under the pseudonym, ‘Old Hubert’, and was a prominent member of two campaigning societies for reforms at the time: the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information.
Another example I discovered whilst researching diet was William Banting, a portly Victorian gentleman, who discovered by deductive reasoning and trial and error that a low-carbohydrate, high-fat, diet led to rapid and sustained weight loss. Instead of writing a book he wrote a pamphlet and LCHF diet is now eponymously referred to as the Banting Diet and the practice of being on his diet as ‘banting’. Tilly Tansy, a medical historian and colleague, has referred to pamphleting as being the equivalent of Twitter in the pre-digital era.
I wonder what Georgian and Victorian Londoners would have thought about YouTube and vlogging, a very modern version of the Speakers’ Corner, and the new generation of influencers it has spawned? Surely they are simply the modern equivalents of James Parkinson and William Banting, except with more rapid global appeal.
What all social media platforms have in common is that they allow the Joe Soaps’ of the world a platform be it writing (Twitter, Wordpress, Blogger), pictures (Instagram, Pinterest), voice (podcasting), music (Soundcloud) or video (vlogging) and allow individuals to compete, sometimes head-on, with traditional media. I would go further and argue that social media is the ultimate expression of a mature democracy, which is why as a liberal I am extremely concerned about the mounting level of political interference in social media and the governance of the web. Censorship and loss of net neutrality are existential threats and should be resisted.
A few months ago I was referred to at a public meeting as being an MS influencer. A modern term to describe someone who uses social media to influence the people who follow them. What makes one person become an influencer and stand out from the crowd is no different from a speaker on Speakers’ Corner who draws the biggest crowd. The most important characteristic is reputation, i.e. being trustworthy or honest, having standards and sticking to them, and being consistent. Another characteristic is novelty; being prepared to put your head above the parapet and not follow the crowds. You need to have something new to say or to at least have a new spin on an old idea. Very few ideas are original, but how you communicate them is key to novelty and stickiness. Stickiness is an adjective to describe how well ideas stick and are transmitted in society. Less is usually more when it comes to social media. Addressing an unmet need is also critically important. The unmet need, however, is in the eye of the beholder. You can’t please everyone so you need to define your audience and be careful not to stray off target. The real power of social media is its ability to segment the world; what is important to one person may be irrelevant to another. Having a narrative is another important component of successful social media influencers. In a world where eyeballs mean everything having a compelling story to tell often makes the difference. My daughters who are both digital natives only follow people who have a narrative.
From a personal perspective, an additional role of social media includes self-reflection and a form of documentation; a modern version of a diary. By using social media to think aloud and develop my thoughts with feedback from followers allows me to be less rigid in my thinking, more lateral and more accommodating. Having a sounding board and a collective of thinkers can only help with the adoption of ideas and the influence they have on the wider world.
I am acutely aware that there are many critics of social media platforms and the new generation of influencers these platforms are producing, but this is usually out of ignorance of the historical role social media has played in society. Be it the speakers on Speakers’ Corner, the Pamphleteers on the streets of Georgian, London, or the Bloggers of today we are the underpinnings of an old and threatened political movement called liberalism.
Social media is genre that should be championed and protected from the rising wave of populism and autocracy.