Wall Posts: Putting Pompeii’s Political Graffiti in a Modern Context

social media clip artDo you instantly share your amazing dinner on Instagram?  Post about your political opinion on Facebook?  Find a liked-minded community through LinkedIn? Perhaps our ancestors had similar feelings about their social networking systems.

While part of online social networking is creating an identity, the main purpose is to create connections with others and add to the conversation.   In today’s hypercaffeinated online world, we get excited if a celebrity or important organization re-tweets us. We feel part of something, connected to a person or idea that expands our sense of self.

A reconstruction of a Pompeii street with political propaganda. Image courtesy of webmark.com.

A reconstruction of a Pompeii street with political propaganda. Image courtesy of webmark.com.

Political groups in ancient Pompeii sought the same connection by vying for prime space—literally–on the walls of wealthy citizens or walls in well-trafficked areas.  A recent article by Stephanie Pappas on LiveScience.com illuminated the vast amount of political graffiti in Pompeii and the new evidence that homeowners could control which politician “posted” on their walls.  Pompei, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is a city unique for its preservation of the daily meanderings of its citizens.  That is how we discovered that its residents were as ardent about communicating through social engagement as many of us are today.   Researcher Eeva-Maria Viitanen, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, looked at more than 1,000 political messages scrawled on walls in three areas of Pompeii.  The result?  While well-trafficked locations were understandably sought—following the conventional real estate wisdom even back then–more highly prized were the private walls of wealthy citizens, despite the fact that they comprised only a third of the available space as bars, stores and more modest residences.  Were the bars and other areas less appealing because their patrons were less politically involved? Or that the literacy rates at the local watering holes were unimpressive?  Perhaps, as with today’s online endorsements and followings, it was the validation by a person of influence that was the tipping point.  It is clear that even 2,000 years ago, the marketing mantra of capturing the right audience thrived.

With wealthy homeowners complicit in Pompeii’s electoral campaigning, one can’t help but think of how we today curate our own Facebook walls and Twitter accounts, passing along support for our chosen politicians, singers, comedians and innovators.

Is it really surprising that building social capital has always been important for success?  While the term has only been coined recently, the practice is ancient.  Social capital–combined resources of people linked through networks for mutually beneficial social cooperation–basically boils down to creating relationships. It enables material and symbolic exchanges among individuals or groups and encourages action. [1]  Social capital involves both strong ties and weak ties between people and groups, with the tie being stronger based on how much time, emotion, trust, and reciprocity is involved in the relationship. [2]  Politicians, both ancient and contemporary, have used those ties to promote themselves and their campaign issues.

It seems we also had “opinion leaders” in ancient times as we do now.  Opinion leaders have always served a pivotal role in sociopolitical contexts.  Information is cached, selected and distributed through the opinion leaders, who serve as a gatekeeper of useful knowledge for the general society. [3]  Today, these opinion leaders are the popular Tweeters or the person responsible for posting to a well-respected organization’s Facebook page.  In ancient Pompeii, they were the owners of advantageous graffiti real estate.

While it is tempting to think that no other place or time had the constellation of human ingenuity and intelligence we have today, the research in Pompeii explodes that theory.  Whether on ancient walls or in cyberspace, humans will always seek to engage, connect and influence, to do battle with opposing ideas and to weigh which opinion counts. Connection. It is a need as old as time.

1. Elizabeth Crooke, Museums and Community: Ideas, Issues and Challenges (New York: 2007)

2. Jonthon Coulson, “The Strength of Weak Ties in Social Networks,” (MA thesis, University of Missouri-
Columbia, 2009)  http://jonthon.org/attic/JonthonClouson.Thesis.pdf

3. Duncan J. Watts and Peter Sheridan Dodds, “Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation,” Journal of Consumer Research , Vol. 34, No. 4 (December 2007)http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/518527

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