Tom Standage's Blog
June 20, 2015
Another interview. This one is with Lifehacker.com, as part of their series on “How I Work”, in which they ask people about their working routines and try to get them to reveal productivity tips. I was very happy to do this interview because I’ve long been interested in life hacking, but I’m quite sceptical about it; in my experience, reading life-hacking tips is what you do when you are trying to avoid doing any work. As I explain in the interview:
I have a connection with life-hacking that goes back quite a long way, and I’ve internalized some of its earliest and most effective nostrums. I’ve known Danny O’Brien, who coined the term, since the 1990s when we were both covering the emergence of the Internet. Then in 2006 Cory Doctorow was telling me about how Danny and Merlin Mann had been asked to write a book on life-hacking to improve productivity but had hilariously not managed to get around to it. So I asked Cory to write a piece for The Economist on life-hacking and we did a box with a few of the best hacks. My favorites: parking on a downhill slope; declaring vertical days dedicated to a single project; use a “dash” to make a task seem more approachable. I’ve been using all of those hacks ever since. My son, who is nine, loves watching life-hacking videos on YouTube, but they are all useless things like how to open packets of Doritos more efficiently, as far as I can tell. I think the life-hacking movement identified the easy wins early on. It’s now become an industry that helps people put off doing real work, but in a way that convinces them that they will be much more productive when they get back to doing real work, which is kind of ironic. The old life-hacks are the best, it would seem.
Earlier this year I was interviewed by Joseph Lichterman of Nieman Lab about my approach to digital strategy at The Economist. The interview lasted a bit less than an hour, and I said essentially the same things to him that I say to everyone else when I’m asked about this. (Our strategy isn’t secret, in part because we think it would be difficult for anyone else to emulate, because it depends on historical factors that are difficult for other publications to copy.) The difference is that Joseph transcribed every single word, and put it all in the interview—even the part where my phone rings. This happens rarely, which is why I don’t divert it when doing an interview; and, as in this case, it’s quite often someone trying to sell an IT product to me in the mistaken belief that I’m responsible for IT procurement. You can imagine how this happens: they call the Economist switchboard and ask for the person responsible for IT, and they get put through to the digital editor (which is what my title used to be). Anyway, the result is the longest and most detailed description of where I’m coming from. I’ve found it rather useful as a summary I can point people towards. So, here it is. And no, that’s not me. That’s George Bush, with a copy of The Economist, which has been read by every US president since JFK.
To my great surprise I won a prize at the British Media Awards:
The Pioneer of the Year Award is being given to Tom Standage in recognition of the role he has played in spearheading innovation and building new products at The Economist, expanding the brand while remaining true to its core values. Through developing products such as In Other Words and Economist Espresso, he has challenged the conventional relationship between editorial and commercial teams, and shown how powerfully editorial talent can drive product and business development in media.
I would like to thank my wife, my agent, etc etc
One of the things I have been grappling with lately is how to develop new digital products within a news organisation: something I’ve been doing for a while, most notably with Espresso last year. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a particular problem in the news business because of the traditional church-state divide between editorial and commercial sides of the business. This makes the co-operation between editorial, commercial and technology functions hard to co-ordinate, so it’s even harder for news organisations to go digital than it is for most companies. I was asked to summarise my thoughts at the Digital Media Strategies 2015 conference. Here’s the video of my talk.
The other day I realised that I’m now more likely to express my thoughts publicly in the form of talks and interviews than articles or blog posts. (In long form, at least; short-form thoughts go on Twitter, obviously.) So I might as well post those talks and interviews on this blog. That way it will continue to serve in some way as my outboard brain. I think this approach is perhaps best described as “pseudo-blogging”. On with the pseudo-blog posts!
November 3, 2013
Today a review of “Writing on the Wall” appeared in the New York Times. Which is great, obviously. But almost as exciting (to me, at least) is that the NYT chose to illustrate the review with an image of a Roman wax tablet, taken from the book, and juxtaposed with an image of an iPad. Thus my “Roman iPad” joke, which always gets a laugh when I talk about the book, has reached its largest audience so far.
Yes, the Romans really did have their own version of the iPad. Instead of notebooks they jotted things down on wax tablets of various shapes and sizes, from small ones (the size of an iPhone 4) to big ones (the size of a big iPad, before the iPad Air showed up). The image at the top of this post is a particularly fine example, from the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne (to which I am indebted for the picture). It is the size, shape and aspect ratio of a modern iPad. (Note to Google: it’s a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 16:9, so the Romans are with me when I say that I find 16:9 a bit odd.)
These tablets had a layer of wax inside a wooden frame. You’d use a stylus to scratch things into the wax, and flip the stylus over to use its flat end to smooth the wax and erase things when necessary. That’s why I like to say that the woman in the image below is using the Roman equivalent of a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. As you can see, several tablets were often bound together, like the pages in a book, to increase storage capacity. You can buy a modern replica, if you’re interested in trying this, or make your own.
If you were a wealthy Roman who wanted to read the news over breakfast, you might send a scribe down to the forum to jot down excerpts from the daily gazette, or acta diurna, onto one of these tablets. You could then copy highlights from the news to your friends: the text would be copied onto papyrus rolls and taken to them by messenger. They might then copy those news reports, in turn, to their own friends, adding their own comments or analysis. This is how the Roman social-media system worked.
Because the amount of space on a wax tablet or single sheet of papyrus was limited, the Romans used abbreviations. SPD, short for “SALUTEM PLURINAM DICIT” meant “says many greetings”, for example; if I was writing to someone called Mark I (or my scribe) might write TOM MARCO SPD (Tom, to Mark, says many greetings) at the top. Another abbreviation was used as a sign-off: SVBEEV, short for “SI VALES BENE EST EGO VALEO”, which meant “If you are well, that’s good; I’m well”. It was equivalent to TTFN or GTG today. Alas, there seems not to have been a Roman equivalent of LOL. But the Romans certainly had their own version of the iPad.
October 19, 2013
“Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years’ was published on October 10th in Britain and Commonwealth countries, and on October 15th in the United States. (To buy the book, click the links on the right.) I’m on the road promoting it for two weeks, starting in Seattle and ending up in New York. I talked about the book at Town Hall Seattle and at Powell’s in Portland, and next week I’m speaking at Harvard (see above) at 7pm on October 21st and at Barnes & Noble Tribeca at 6pm on October 23rd. But mostly I’ve been doing radio interviews (and some TV) and visiting tech firms, including Twitter, Facebook and Google, to spread the word that what they are doing is not as new as they might think. To be fair, Dick Costolo of Twitter, who I saw while at Twitter HQ, has compared Twitter with the agora or marketplace of ancient Greek city-states, so he’s been thinking along similar lines. So far the book has been reviewed by publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Independent, Financial Times and Literary Review. Having started work on this book in late 2010, I’m thrilled that it’s finally available on bookshelves, both physical and digital, and that people seem to be enjoying it — and agreeing with my contention that, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “what we tend to regard as the radiant novelty of the digital age may really be a rebirth”.
September 26, 2013
As you can see, my “Share it like Cicero” tube map has expanded, with the addition of @robinsloan (who inspired me to cook up the scheme in the first place) and @magicandrew in the US; here’s a pic of the hand-over. Also, two copies of “Writing on the Wall” appeared in Canada, in the hands of @vivi0202 and @kirstinestewart. So far the most widely travelled copy is that of @kattekrab, who took it from Australia back to England and passed it to @pdjohnson. All this has required the creation of several new Tube lines. (If this makes no sense to you at all, here’s my explanation of the whole scheme.)
In other ancient social-media news, a cardinal at the Vatican claimed this week that Jesus Christ was the first person to use Twitter. “Writing on the Wall” explains that Cicero got there first, five decades earlier, however, and that the most effective user of social media in the early church was St Paul. Also this week Lloyd’s List announced that, 279 years after starting life as a wall post in a London coffeehouse, it would switch to all-digital distribution at the end of this year, thus moving from an ancient social-media platform to a modern one. Finally, a review of “Writing on the Wall” has appeared at Critical Margins.
September 7, 2013
In June I proposed an unusual way to distribute a box of galley copies of my forthcoming book, “Writing on the Wall”. The book is about ancient social media, so the idea was to mimic the Roman book-distribution system, which involved the passing of books along social networks. The Romans used scribes to copy books before giving them to their friends; I’ve agreed to send out signed replacement copies to participants in the scheme, to replace the one they’re passing on. After my initial post 296 people volunteered to take part, and I selected nine of them using a mysterious pseudo-random process and some dodgy Excel macros. Then, in August, I sent out nine copies. One went to Australia; two to Canada; two to the UK; one to India; and three to the US. Each one has a message inside explaining how the experiment works, and inviting participants to document their sharing of the book on the social-media platform of their choice.
Shockingly, it seems to be working. Of the nine copies, four (in Australia, Britain and India) have been seen in the wild (ie, on Twitter) as their recipients have revealed that they are participating in the experiment. (The North American copies seem to be taking longer to arrive.) The recipient of one of the British copies, @wadds, tweeted that he was reading the book and, when he’d finished it, posted a review on his blog (thanks, Stephen). He then sent the book to @meditations in Malmö, Sweden. The other British copy went to @acotgreave, who tweeted a picture when it arrived and has since passed it on (as seen in this photo) to @DataRemixed at a conference in the US. In India, @chattychd read the book, posted this review on Facebook and then passed it on to his friend @vaibhavmehan, who is also in Chandigarh. In Australia, @kattekrab has tweeted some thoughts as she reads the book.
I tried plotting the movements of these four books on a map, but quickly realised that I was going to have to take some cartographical liberties to make it legible. So I took my cue from the London Tube map instead. The result is shown above. I plan to keep updating the map as the North American books appear and all the books continue to move around. I like the idea of using modern social media to track my recreation of one of its earliest forms. Roman publishing was all about social networking, and Roman books were a form of social media.
So if you want to read the book before it comes out, you can see who has copies of it and suggest that they might want to pass their copy to you next by consulting the map or searching on Twitter for #wotw2013. Participants in the experiment will get a free signed copy from me (until I run out of galleys, at least), but there’s now another way you can (sort of) get a signed copy, because this week my publisher Bloomsbury launched a book-plate offer. Pre-order the book and we’ll send you a signed book plate to stick in it. You can find the order links in the right-hand column.
In other book-related news, my TEDx talk based on the book, “Lessons from ancient social media”, was picked as TEDx talk of the day on September 6th. And the first formal review of the book has appeared: Booklist gave “Writing on the Wall” a starred review, calling it “a thoroughly fascinating look at the evolution of social media”.
August 19, 2013
The video of my TEDxOxbridge talk on “lessons from ancient social media”, based on my forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall” is finally available! I’m quite pleased with it, even if they did cut out my bad joke at the beginning (“Good morning everyone — It’s great to be here in the historic city of, er, Oxbridge.”) Anyway, the talk gives a good flavour of the book, with three examples of ancient social media environments (Romans, Luther, coffeehouses) and three lessons from history that we can apply today. The book, of course, contains lots more examples and concludes with many more lessons.
I would really like to do a longer, geekier version of this talk at SXSWi next March, under the title “Tweet like a Roman: Social media’s long history”. If that’s something you’d like to see, please vote for my proposal on the SXSWi site. Fingers crossed! Finally, the “Share it like Cicero” winners have been picked and notified, and the galleys are going in the post this week.