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' 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.