Did Social Media Bring About the Protestant Reformation?

By Deane Barker on January 15, 2012

How Luther went viral: This is a really interesting analysis of how Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” might have been the first piece of media to “go viral” and can  be considered one of the first examples of “social media.”  It was famously nailed to the door of a church, but later spread far and wide and led to the Protestant Reformation.

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 […]

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation.

Obviously, this broadens the definition of “social media” quite a bit.  This is just how news was spread back then.  However, that fact might help us put things in even more perspective: is the current world of social media just a return to how things used to be, before we got inculcated into consuming single source-ish media?

The furor surrounding Luther’s paper also marked a rare thing in the time of limited communication – a public two-way debate, conducted through pamphlets distributed across the region.

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate.Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed.