10/15/2013 12:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Forgotten History of Social News

Who invented the newspaper? You may be surprised to learn that it was Julius Caesar. In 59BC he decreed that a daily summary should be published of the activities of the Roman senate and of the people's assembly. The resulting gazette was called the "acta diurna populi Romani" -- literally, the "daily acts of the people of Rome". The word diurna, meaning daily, is the root of the English words "journal" and "journalism."

As well as providing a round-up of the political news, the acta included details of holidays and religious festivals, and announcements of important births, deaths, marriages and divorces. And how many copies of this Roman newspaper were produced each day? Just one, which was posted in the forum on a noticeboard, where anyone could go and read it. The state took care of the publication of the acta, in other words, but made no attempt to copy or distribute it. That was left up to the readers. The earliest ancestor of the newspaper relied, in other words, on social distribution to reach a wide audience.

This worked surprisingly well. The historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st century AD, explains that news published in the acta became known throughout the Roman world. In his letters, the Roman statesman Cicero routinely assumes that his friends in far-flung provinces have access to the acta, and refers to receiving his own copies while travelling. These copies were all produced and distributed by hand.

Within Rome, the wealthy would send a scribe to the forum with a stylus and a wax tablet (which looked very much like an iPad) to jot down items of interest from the acta. News items could then be copied onto papyrus rolls and sent to friends outside the city. Cicero's letters show that he and his contemporaries relied on copies of excerpts of the acta, obtained in this way and sent to them by their friends in bundles with letters, to keep up with events when they were away from Rome.

One advantage of getting friends to pass on the news by letter was they could highlight items of interest and add their own commentary or background information. Then as now, you are far more likely to pay attention to something if a friend says it is important or expresses an opinion about it. Accordingly, when Cicero was made governor of Cilicia, a remote Roman province, he asked his friend Marcus Caelius Rufus to keep him informed of goings on in Rome. Caelius was a well-connected young man who would, Cicero hoped, provide valuable commentary on the political news and flesh out the bare-bones reporting of the acta. Caelius duly employed a scribe named Chrestus to supply a full copy of each day's acta, along with a compilation of announcements, proclamations and gossip from the forum.

But, in the first recorded example of social-media oversharing, Cicero complained that Caelius was not being selective enough. "Well! Do you really think that this is what I commissioned you to do, to send me reports of the gladiatorial pairs, the adjournment of trials, Chrestus' compilation, and such tittle-tattle as nobody would have the impertinence to repeat to me when I am at Rome?" he wrote. Cicero wanted Caelius's analysis of political events, not the gladiator results. A chastened Caelius responded that, "I had rather err in the direction of telling you what you don't desire to know, than that of passing over anything that is essential."

That the Romans relied on their networks of friends and acquaintances to filter, copy and distribute the news for them should not come as a surprise. Without printing presses or broadcasting, there was no efficient way for the state to deliver information to large numbers of people at a time. Social news-distribution systems were in fact the norm for most of human history. By the 17th century, English nobles were having regular "letters of news" sent from London to their country estates, just like their Roman ancestors. The local newspapers that emerged in the American colonies in the 18th century were also social platforms: their columns were mostly filled with letters from readers, accounts of speeches and items copied from other papers.

It was only the advent of the steam press in the 19th century, and radio and television in the 20th, that concentrated control of the news media in the hands of a small cadre of professional journalists. These industrialised forms of media were so powerful that they overshadowed the social models of information distribution that had prevailed for centuries. But in the past decade the internet has democratised publishing and made social distribution cheap and efficient enough to compete with mass media. We tend to think of the emergence of social news platforms, such as Reddit or the Huffington Post, as historically unprecedented. But in many ways they represent the revival of a long traditional that dates back to the Roman era.

Tom Standage is digital editor of The Economist and author of 'Writing on the Wall: Social Media -- The First 2,000 Years,' published this week by Bloomsbury