The List

Martin Luther and the Viral Superstars

5 pioneers of social media, from before social media was an annoying buzzword.

 

Before PSY blew up YouTube, before @Horse_ebooks became a Twitter superstar, even before the world discovered LOLcats, there was the apostle Paul -- early Christian missionary, eventual saint and, it turns out, a pioneer of viral media.

Today, we think of social media as a uniquely modern, uniquely digital phenomenon, one that only took off in the last decade -- really in just the last five years. In fact, today's bloggers and tweeters are heirs to a surprisingly deep and rich tradition that began with the Romans 2,000 years ago, helped cause the split within the Catholic Church, aided the U.S. fight for independence, and prepared the way for the French Revolution.

Put down the iPad, my children, and gather round. Here are five historical pioneers of social media -- figures who went viral long before the Internet.

1. The Apostle Paul

Paul of Tarsus was the most adroit user of the Roman social-media system, harnessing it to amass followers and bind together the scattered communities of the early Christian church, and promote his ideas on how the church should develop. Written on papyrus rolls in the 1st century AD, his open letters -- or epistles, as we now know them in their New Testament form -- were addressed to specific churches (the Book of Romans is a letter to the church in Rome, for example, and Corinthians is a letter to the church in Corinth) but were clearly intended for wider distribution, like a Tumblr post sent out into the world to be blogged and reblogged. Initially, church leaders would read them out to the members of their congregation. But Paul also expected recipient churches to copy and share his letters with other churches nearby. As he wrote in his letter to the Colossians: "After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea." Copies of the letters rippled across Paul's network of churches, so that they each ended up with a complete collection. Readings from Paul's letters became a part of Christian worship, and they eventually came to be seen as scripture by the early church, whose leaders incorporated them into the New Testament.

In its early years, Christianity consisted of rival movements whose members disagreed over the meaning of Christ's teachings and his intended audience for them. Paul used social media to ensure that his view prevailed, cementing the establishment of the Christian church as a religion open to all, not just to Jews. Such is his influence that his letters are still read out in churches all over the world today -- a striking testament to the power of social distribution.

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2. Martin Luther

Social media helped Paul build a church; in the hands of Martin Luther, an obscure theologian in the German town of Wittenberg, it helped to split Western Christianity.

Luther hadn't expected his "95 Theses" -- a handwritten list of theological challenges to the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, which he proposed as topics of debate in 1517 -- to spread as quickly as it did. Manuscript copies of his pioneering listicle passed from hand to hand at first, but then printers got hold of it, accelerating its spread and making it the talk of Germany within two weeks, and of Western Europe in four. Luther realized he could use this new technology, invented a few decades earlier by Johannes Gutenberg, to his further advantage.

He followed up with a series of pamphlets written in vernacular German, giving the text of each to a printer in his home town and waiting for it to ripple to the next town, and the next, through repeated reprinting (akin, you could say, to retweeting). Millions of copies of his pamphlets spread like wildfire throughout Europe between 1517 and 1527 as readers shared and recommended them to their friends, who then sought out their own copies. Thanks to the "marvellous, new and subtle art, the art of printing," one of Luther's contemporaries later noted, "each man became eager for knowledge, not without feeling a sense of amazement at his former blindness." This posed a dilemma for the Catholic Church, which was initially reluctant to respond with pamphlets of its own, because doing so would be an admission that theological matters were open to debate. The extraordinary popularity of Luther's pamphlets signaled to him, and to his readers, the breadth of support for his views -- just as social media revealed the extent of anti-government feeling in Egypt and Tunisia, a phenomenon that modern media scholars call "synchronization of opinion." Luther's message went viral, and the result was the Reformation.

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3. John Harington

Today, using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to improve your "personal brand" is social media 101. But it was Elizabethan courtier John Harington who, in the 16th century, pioneered the use of social media for self-promotion (though today he is better known as the inventor of the flushing toilet).

The son of a poet and an attendant to Elizabeth I, he was one of the childless queen's 102 godchildren. He first appeared at court at age 21 and quickly made a name for himself with his snarky epigrams. Satirical and daring in their humor, the chief purpose of these short, snappy messages (today, they'd fit neatly into a tweet) was to advertise the dazzling intellect of their author and advance his career. He became known as the queen's "saucy godson" for quips like this one: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason." He even dared to criticize the queen's father, Henry VIII, for his unfortunate habit of having his wives beheaded. In one of his epigrams, a noblewoman receives an invitation to marry the king, but declines:

"...I greatly thank the king your master,
And would (such love in me his fame hath bred)
My body venture so: but not my head."

His quips were eagerly whispered from one courtier to another and circulated in written form within the court and beyond. Harington himself gave manuscripts of his collected epigrams to close friends and family members. He liked to play the part of the wise fool, jesting on the sidelines of Elizabeth's court and wrapping up his moral and political barbs in apparently harmless witticisms -- their true meaning only apparent once the laughter had subsided. For Harington and his contemporaries, writing poetry was a way to establish a reputation and win a place at court. Poetry in the Elizabethan court could be used to ask for advancement or, in the event of falling from favor, to apologize for misdeeds. Harington's poetry convinced the queen of his cleverness, and she eventually gave him official duties to perform as a courtier, tutor and military observer. After a checkered career in which he often got into trouble for overstepping the mark, he eventually ended up with a knighthood.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

4. Thomas Paine

During the 18th century, the American colonies established an increasingly efficient media-sharing system. Local newspapers, with a circulation of a few hundred at best, did not rely on journalists for stories, but instead reprinted letters, speeches, and pamphlets supplied by their readers, and thus provided a shared, social platform through which people could share and discuss their views with others. (Think of it as Gawker or SBNation.) As the reliability and frequency of the postal service improved, it allowed free exchange by post of newspapers both within and between colonies. This allowed noteworthy letters and pamphlets to reach a wide audience as they were printed in one newspaper and then copied and reprinted by others.

As tensions grew with the government in London, several authors wrote letters or pamphlets that lit up this colonial media network, including John Dickinson's anonymous "Letters from a Farmer" and John Adams's writings under the pen name "Novanglus." But most successful of all at exploiting this network was Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant to the colonies who articulated the case for independence more clearly and forcefully than anyone had done before. His pamphlet, "Common Sense," quickly rippled through the colonies, shared at first among the political elite, who excitedly recommended it to each other, and then widely reprinted and excerpted in local papers. It was unquestionably the most popular and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, eventually selling more than 250,000 copies and making Paine the world's bestselling author. In another example of synchronization of opinion, its popularity revealed to the colonists the breadth of support for independence. Many years later, John Adams wrote disapprovingly to Thomas Jefferson that "history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine." That is an exaggeration, but not much of one.

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5. Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux

One of the jobs of the count of Maurepas, a senior official in charge of the Paris police in the 1740s, was to monitor closely what was being said about King Louis XV in satirical rhymes, called libelles, which circulated in salons, cafes, markets, and taverns. As they passed from person to person, whether orally or written on small scraps of paper, these ditties would be modified and reworked, with new verses added or names changed. Such poems could easily be updated in response to the news, a process of collective authorship that assimilated and encapsulated public opinion. Maurepas collected these poems through a network of informers, so that he could monitor public opinion on the king's behalf, tracking which courtiers were being satirized and collecting the latest rumors about the royal family. As with modern Internet censorship in China, the authorities would intervene if someone went too far.

On occasion, Maurepas and other courtiers would also write rhymes of their own to try to influence public opinion, letting them circulate at court and then filter out via salons and cafes to society at large. One such rhyme led to Maurepas's dismissal in 1749, when it became apparent that he was the author. It insulted the king's mistress, who was unpopular among his faction at court. Perhaps not unlike a certain former White House staffer, Maurepas had sought to exploit the media system to his own advantage, but instead brought about his own downfall. The power of the rhymes, however, remained intact: The relentless criticism of the libelles steadily corroded respect for the monarchy, undermined the king's authority, and paved the way for the French Revolution.

* * *

And then came the Dark Ages. Starting in the mid-19th century, everything changed. The advent of the steam-powered printing press, followed in the 20th century by radio and television, made possible what we now call mass media (and what conventional wisdom thinks of as traditional media). These new technologies of mass dissemination could supply information directly to large numbers of people with unprecedented speed and efficiency, but their high cost meant that control of the flow of information became concentrated into the hands of a select few. The delivery of information became a one-way, centralized broadcast, overshadowing the tradition of two-way, conversational and social distribution that had come before.

It is only in recent years that the Internet has made it possible to reach a large audience at low cost, allowing social distribution to re-emerge from the shadow of mass media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age is thus both a profound shift -- and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

The List

Zero-Sum Enrichment

Six reasons why the United States can’t force Iran's nuclear hand.

Iranian president Hasan Rouhani's recent charm offensive has raised expectations for a diplomatic breakthrough heading into this week's nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia (the so-called P5+1) in Geneva. Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, and the Islamic Republic may finally be motivated to take steps to rein in its nuclear program, including accepting limits on uranium enrichment, in exchange for lessening the pressure.

Hawks in Israel and Washington, however, have been quick to describe Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing," warning that the Iranian regime may agree to "cosmetic changes" to its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, but ultimately will do little to constrain its quest for the bomb. In particular, they have cautioned the Obama administration against acquiescing to an agreement that allows Iran to continue any domestic uranium enrichment, even at low levels suitable only for civilian nuclear power and under stringent international supervision. In his Oct. 1 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that only a complete dismantling of Iran's enrichment program could prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. This position has been echoed by conservative think tanks in Washington and by numerous voices on Capitol Hill. Their collective mantra: "a bad deal is worse than no deal."

Attempting to keep Iran as far away from nuclear weapons as possible by insisting on "zero enrichment" seems sensible. But in reality, the quest for the optimal deal would doom diplomacy with Iran, making the far worse outcomes of unconstrained Iranian nuclearization or a military showdown over Tehran's nuclear program much more likely.

Uranium enrichment is one pathway to producing bomb-grade explosive material for nuclear weapons, and all else being equal, it is easier to verify the total absence of such activities than different gradations of them. Of course, it would clearly be preferable if Iran ended its uranium enrichment activities altogether. Moreover, most countries with civilian nuclear power plants forgo domestic enrichment, so it seems reasonable to demand the same of Tehran. (Although it is also the case that Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands have domestic enrichment capabilities while remaining compliant with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)

But while a permanent end to Iranian enrichment would be ideal, it is also highly unrealistic. The Iranian regime has invested enormous amounts of political capital and billions of dollars over decades to master the knowledge and centrifuge technology associated with uranium enrichment -- and nothing will put that genie back in the bottle. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a single bona fide Iran expert on the planet that believes Tehran would accept a diplomatic deal with the P5+1 that zeroed out enrichment for all time.

And here's six reasons why:

1. Backing an end to enrichment would be political suicide for Rouhani.

Iran's new president simply can't agree to permanently end enrichment. In 2003, during his previous role as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, he convinced Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to accept a temporary suspension of enrichment. But further talks with the international community stalled in early 2005 over a failure to agree on Iran's right to enrichment, and Tehran ended its suspension shortly thereafter. Rouhani believes -- as do his critics in the Revolutionary Guard and the supreme leader -- that the West pocketed Iranian concessions and Tehran got nothing in return. The failure of Iran's earlier approach under Rouhani facilitated the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hardline policies, including the development of a much more robust uranium enrichment capability. Rouhani is unlikely to make that mistake again. And even if Rouhani were somehow convinced to do so, he would be savaged by his right flank, significantly undercutting his presidency.

2. It's a matter of pride and principle for the regime.

The regime has invested far too much of its domestic legitimacy in defending Iran's "rights" (defined as domestic enrichment) to completely capitulate now, regardless of the pressure. The nuclear program and "resistance to arrogant powers" are firmly imbedded in the Islamic Republic's ideological raison d'etre. Khamenei, the ultimate decider on the nuclear file, and the Revolutionary Guards will not give up on the program altogether, for it could be a viewed by their supporters and opponents alike as a total defeat.

However, Khamenei may accept a deal that constrains Iran's nuclear program but still allows limited enrichment. Under such an agreement, he could tell the Iranian people: "I said we never wanted nuclear weapons and I have issued a fatwa [religious ruling] against them. I insisted that our rights be respected, and now they are." But if Khamenei cries uncle and dismantles the entire program, how will he explain the billions invested and justify the years of sanctions and isolation to his people? What would it all have been for? Khamenei likely fears such a humiliation more than he fears economic collapse or targeted military strikes against his nuclear facilities.

3. If Iran does want to go nuclear, sanctions aren't going to stop it in time.

Although hawks believe Tehran is on the ropes and that additional sanctions can force Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear program, economic and nuclear timelines don't align. To be sure, Iran's economy is in dire straits, and a desire to alleviate the pressure is driving the regime's apparent willingness to negotiate more seriously. But despite the current pain, Iran is not facing imminent economic collapse. This may be a dark period in Tehran, but Khamenei likely believes that Iran weathered worse times during the Iran-Iraq war. Some analysts have warned that Iran could achieve a critical "breakout capability" -- the ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons so fast that it could not be detected or stopped -- sometime in mid-2014. Yet, even if the U.S. Congress goes forward with additional harsh sanctions, the regime is not likely to implode before it reaches this technical threshold and, if it did, it might make little difference. Even the imprisoned leadership of the Green Movement and Iranian secularists opposed to the Islamic Republic support domestic uranium enrichment. The only way to stop a breakout capability is to get a deal, fast -- and that means accepting some limited enrichment under strict safeguards.

4. Washington is still an effective bogeyman.

Khamenei likely believes that Rouhani's election and the Iranian president's new moderate tone provide sufficient domestic and international credibility to mitigate the downside risks of failed diplomacy. Congress could attempt to force Tehran to accept maximalist demands by increasing sanctions, but the supposed mechanism for pressure affecting Iranian calculations is the regime's fear of popular unrest. Yet, if P5+1 negotiations are seen to fail because of Washington's insistence on zero enrichment, the Iranian public is likely to blame the United Sates not the regime for the failure. Economic pressure on the regime may increase as a result, but popular pressure to change course may not.

5. Pressure will become less effective if the United States comes off as the intransigent party.

If talks collapse because of Washington's unwillingness to make a deal on enrichment -- a deal Russia and China and numerous other European and Asian nations support -- it will also become harder to enforce sanctions. Whether or not Rouhani's diplomatic overtures are genuine, he has already succeeded in shifting international perceptions of Iran. If the United States, rather than Iran, comes across as the unreasonable party, it will become much more difficult to maintain the international coalition currently isolating the government in Tehran. Some fence sitters in Europe and Asia will start to flirt with Iran again, leaving the United States in the untenable position of choosing between imposing sanctions on banks and companies in China, Europe, India, Japan, or South Korea, or acquiescing to the erosion of the comprehensive sanctions regime.

6. An uncompromising stance could drive Iran toward the bomb.  

Finally, if talks fail because the United States insists on a maximalist position, Khamenei and other Iranian hardliners will likely interpret it as definitive proof that Washington's real goal is regime change rather than a nuclear accord. Solidifying this perception would likely enhance, rather than lessen, Tehran's motivation to seek a nuclear deterrent as the only means of ensuring regime survival. 

* * *

A permanent end to Iranian enrichment is not in the cards. Instead of pushing for an impossible goal, the United States and other world powers should push for a possible one: an agreement that caps Iranian enrichment at the 5 percent level (sufficient for civilian power plants but far away from bomb-grade) under stringent conditions designed to preclude Tehran's ability to rapidly produce nuclear weapons, including restrictions on Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium, limitations on centrifuges, intrusive inspections, and halting the construction of a plutonium reactor that could open an alternative pathway to nuclear weapons. Such an accord would allow Khamenei and Rouhani to claim Iran's "rights" had been respected, giving them a face-saving way out of the current nuclear crisis. Even this might be difficult for the Iranian regime to stomach. But if paired with meaningful sanctions relief, it has a much better chance of success than insisting on the complete dismantling of Iran's program.

Washington should not accept a bad deal. But if we are to avoid the worst possible outcomes -- unconstrained enrichment leading to an eventual Iranian bomb or another major war in the Middle East -- then a good-if-imperfect deal is preferable to no deal at all.

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