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Martin Luther and the birth of viral media

Posted by: | September 25, 2012 | No Comment |

When the word “viral” is used today, we tend to think of a popular Youtube video before we think about the kind of infectious contagion that such videos derived this title from.  Most of the time, viral videos are exercises in the extreme, whether it’s an extremely cute dog or an extremely annoying music video, and everything in between.  A (seven-month old) chart of some of the most viral videos ever can be found here.

However, Youtube videos are not the first examples of the viral phenomenon.  Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther wrote up his famous “Ninety-Five Theses,” a written protest of what Martin Luther saw as abuses of clerical power in the Catholic Church.

He posted the first copy on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenburg and sent copies to the Bishop of Brandenburg and to the archbishop Albert of Mainz, who was responsible for the sale of indulgences – a seriously bold move in his day.

Copies of Luther’s theses (which can be read here) had spread throughout Germany in just two weeks, and throughout Europe in two months. Gutenberg’s printing press made this incredibly quick dissemination of media possible.

The extremely controversial nature of what Luther had to say is what ultimately made his writing spread like wildfire, and the printing press allowed those interested in reading it to gain access to it quickly.  It spurred the Protestant Reformation and had a tremendous impact on the world of Christianity from then on.

Without the printing press, it is hard to say whether or not Luther’s writing would have had the impact that it did.  Word of mouth might have helped spread his ideas, but without the printing press, it would have never spread as far as it did nearly as fast.

While viral videos are a relatively new thing, viral media isn’t.  When one reads “The Ninety-Five Theses,” they are looking at the sixteenth century equivalent of “Kony 2012”, but with a lasting impact.

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