Before the tweet and the Facebook post, I was surprised to learn that the atomic unit for the original social network was currency. Bills and coin had the rare character of being objects that reached every person in a society and circulated at very high velocity.
Centuries before Christ, someone realized that one could piggyback off the full reach and high circulation of the currency network to spread political messages from the ruler. More fascinating was that by hijacking the circulation through defacement of the coin or bill, dissidents could spread their political messages even where other communication networks were cut off to them.
The Economist explains the theory and some recent uses of the currency social network:
IS MONEY a good medium to spread messages? At first Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition activist and noted blogger, was sceptical. But then he did the maths: if 5,000 Russians stamped 100 bills each, every citizen would encounter at least one of the altered notes as they passed from person to person.
Members of Iran’s Green Movement used this tactic in 2009, writing slogans on banknotes during their anti-government protests. This prompted a ruling that defaced notes would no longer be accepted by banks. Similarly, supporters of the Occupy movement have added slogans and infographics about income inequality to dollar bills. And members of China’s Falun Gong movement wrote messages on banknotes attacking government persecution.
As we move more and more to new payment systems and fully digital money, it’s worth reflecting that not only has the state gained an effective way to track the flows of money through society, but dissidents have also lost a historical weapon by which they could spread their message far and wide against the will of the state.