A Short History of Social Media (Sort of)

Last night, I was searching the synonym for the word “annoy” (don’t ask), and I noticed a bunch of new features on Google pertaining to word definition, roots, pronunciations, synonyms/antonyms, and the coolest feature of all – line graphs showing the number of times a particular word or phrase has appeared in books since the 1800s (but only up until 2008).

The word/phrase tool is called Ngram viewer and has actually been around since 2010, but this is the first time I noticed the full suite of language tools organised in such a way that I could see the full history of a word with a simple search for “synonym of annoy.”

Then I ran across this enlightening article, explaining that the Author’s Guild had been suing Google for this large scale book scanning project, which was actually conceived in 2002 between Larry Page and future-Yahoo-CEO Marissa Mayer. Just last week, a judge ruled in favour of Google, agreeing with the search giant’s “fair use” line of reasoning. (“Line of reasoning” being the perfect synonym for “argument.” Thanks Google!).

Since I work in social media, I thought I would run some searches on the use of the phrase “social media” throughout history. Without further ado, here is a brief timeline of social media usage throughout history:

social media trend

Interestingly, the term “social media” first appeared briefly on the scene from 1838 until 1852, but then really took off from 1862 with, among other books, William Henry Dawson’s “The Salvation of God.”

OK, It’s obvious I still need to work out how the phrase parsing works; but nonetheless, other evidence suggests social media has been around since long before 1838.

51 B.C. to be precise.

In his new book “Writing in the Wall – Social Media: The First 2000 Years,” author Tom Standage suggests that social media may have been invented in the first century B.C. by the ancient, famed orator and penman Marcus Tullius Cicero.


I first heard about this book on the inspirationally-rich blog Brain Pickings. You should really read the post here, because it gives a great synopsis of the book, as well as other intriguing social media examples from the good-old days (Thomas Edison’s viral cat videos, anyone?).

Unfortunately, both Cicero and Standage will miss out on having their works scanned by Google; Cicero missing the cutoff date by about 2 millennia, and Standage by about 5 years.

Anyway, I’ve gone on enough. I’m trying to mince my words so that only the best to go down in the annals of Google history. So have a look at some of these resources yourself, and have some fun playing around.

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