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November 5, 2013

5 historical pioneers of social media: Martin Luther invented the listicle

LONDON — 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.

               

2. Martin Luther

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