Did Sir Isaac Newton Invent Social Media?

Did Sir Isaac Newton invent social media or was it a group of medieval harness-polishers?

In the 12th century, craftsmen of various types began to loosely (and then formally) affiliate themselves into Trade Guilds. The farriers, knife-makers, locksmiths, chain-forgers, nail-makers, helmet-makers, escutcheon-makers, stonemasons and, aforementioned harness-polishers would gather regularly at their guild halls. The discussions included new developments in their industries, an exchange of best practices, complaints about excessive kingly regulation and taxation, new business opportunities and demonstration of new tools (literally). Naturally, they also competed for status and influence within the group.

Sound familiar?

In 1660, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was founded by Royal Charter of King Charles the Second. In 1703, Sir Isaac Newton took over leadership. During his tenure, membership tripled and the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” (their white papers) were published regularly. It became the global epicenter for scientific knowledge and a gathering place for the most brilliant minds of that era.

Scientists would travel for months simply to spend time with the members, observe their weekly experiments and rub shoulders with Sir Isaac himself. All with the hope of returning to their own institution and be able to say, “After Sir Isaac’s presentation of his theory of gravity, I commented on the celestial bodies’ influence on the tides – and he heartily concurred with my observation.” You can just hear the “ooohs” and “aaaahs” – and smell the jealousy.

Again, is all this sounding familiar?

Sheilagh Ogilvie, professor of economic history at Cambridge, has written that the guilds were, in general, bad things. They stifled competition and innovation. But they did one thing very well. They were the original creators of “social capital” – shared norms, common information, industry influence and collective political action.

And the Royal Society created the best content – along with providing forums where the day’s preeminent thought leaders were available to directly interact with others in the industry.

Both the guilds and the Royal Society were business-related social media platforms long before there was social media. Put another way, there’s always been social media and the rules of the game haven’t really changed much.

The lessons we can learn from their success (or failure) can be directly applied to modern social media strategies:

  • You must have great content published regularly.
  • You must provide both a forum to have discussions and a way to share them.
  • You must have high-profile thought leaders involved in the conversation.
  • And finally, you must provide a means for participants to compete for social status.

We can think of social channels as simply places to build and extend a community of individuals with a common set of interests – and we should – because everyone wants to belong and contribute. But if we layer on top of that, the idea that blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are also “trading platforms,” where social capital is accumulated and exchanged – and we build in ways to reward and measure success – then we’ll be tapping into an eternal truth about business people. And that is, even in the social sphere, they’re in it to win. Just ask the harness polishers.

Keith Loell is the executive creative director of gyro New York.