Recently I came across a blog post by Noah Brier who pondered what McLuhan would think of media today. You see, I consider what I’m doing here very much concerned with media theory, so perhaps making reference to McLuhan is something I should do more often. If only to tell you that when McLuhan spoke of media, he most certainly did not use the term in the way most people, including me, generally do.
Many people are familiar with the moniker “the medium is the message,” but almost as many people seem to forget the mind boggling scope McLuhan applied to this observation. From my perspective what McLuhan studied was the interaction between artifacts of human creation (the media) and their effects on human society (the message) and how one might be able to infer structural changes of societies by the artifacts they create and use.
To me McLuhan did not so much devise a theory of communication as a grand unified theory of how the things mankind invents change the reality of mankind itself. Content is not what he is concerned about and thus his concept of media is not one that focuses on the relation distribution channels have to the information they carry. To McLuhan a light bulb is a medium.
Hence, oftentimes when we try to analyse the “media revolution” that is still ongoing, we hardly look at the shift in a McLuhanian sense. We look at content and wonder how it is shaped and how it will find its audience. Yet the McLuhanian message in this new medium is the phenomenon of networks themselves gaining importance beyond the communication paradigms that used to govern our media use; the point where those networks start to shape a societies perception of the world.
The change of the broadcasting media landscape over the course of only a few decades we are looking at is twofold already: First the interactions of producers and consumers of information have shifted from the broadcasting of mass media push/receive to a query-driven search/produce SEO content where users pull content instead of waiting for it to be pushed to them and producers react to that. Now the introduction of network distributed content sharing poses new questions and marks yet another shift.
We are still struggling to grasp the effects of the first shift. From the way truth is being constructed in the content that shows up in the top google hits we can deduce the hidden properties, the essence of this search medium. The reality of our society has changed because of the influence of the query. Framing of content is now embedded in a query driven feedback loop that was not there when gatekeepers decided what users would get to see.
Users looking for search phrases make the content creators time their articles to match recurring search patterns. An example of this are the video game scare articles that David McCandless analyzed. Worse yet, frames like “mosque at ground zero” get reinforced by the search pattern with only articles that do place the mosque there making it to the top, albeit the mosque is, in fact, located several blocks away.
Thus reality is constructed and with it a piece of our society. That’s what McLuhan was getting at. How from the reaction of society to a medium we can assess what the medium really is. Truth be told, about the effects of the new social sharing I am not yet sure, but it will certainly manifest itself in due time. Until then be weary of claims that the medium is the message when “message” means “content”.