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Social Media: Luther's 95 Theses

The original viral video.

Last month, The Economist put out an article called "Social Media in the 16th Century: How Luther Went Viral", describing how Luther and his followers also used archaic versions of social media to promulgate the ideas from his 95 Theses. Luther’s followers translated his Latin into German, and then converted his long-winded ideas into shorter, pamphlet-sized soundbites? Sound familiar. I think so.

Each contemporary culture convinces itself that it has invented modernity. Our current, most illustrious example of our blazin’ fast brains is something completely new: social media. We’ve seen uprising after uprising, too many way-too-public break-ups, and our friend Justin’s super-cute new puppy all thanks to humble twitter and Facebook. Now, we spread ideas more quickly, internationally and liberally than ever before in history.

Unfortunately for us, we pat ourselves on the backs where no congratulations are due. Certainly the technology and media for transmission of these ideas is new, but the idea of social media as we know it is ancient. The invention of social media, defined as the fast spread of information culturally, allowing the creamiest messages to rise to the top can be attributed to dudes living way back in the 16th century. Sure, they didn’t have glowing screens, carpal tunnel syndrome, or a 140-character limit, but they did have the passion and know-how to change peoples’ minds.

Back in 1517, Luther’s “95 Theses” were spread throughout all of Christendom in about four weeks. Luther’s followers translated his Latin to German, cut his verbosity down to edible pamphlet size, and passed their product out to Christian readers hungry for new ideas. Turns out that one thing about human nature doesn’t change; even back then, people wanted their circles of friends to know exactly what was blowing their minds, so they passed the pamphlets on. And on. And on. Luther and pamphlets weren’t the only medium with which new ideas were spread. During the Reformation, people incorporated the new ideas into fresh lyrics for popular tunes and created woodcuts to be used to print highly consumable visual messages quickly.

Once again, The Economist reminds us that modern folks aren’t quite so clever. Lest we forget, history can’t help but repeat itself, while modernity can’t help but call the thing new.

Were you surprised to read about how such a “modern” development originated way, way back when? What other seemingly- modern inventions are really as old as dirt?