A medium is the pathway by which something moves. The road is the medium for cars, air is the medium for sound vibrations, newspapers used to be the medium for news (now it is clickbait on the internet).
As we see new media start to grow out of the primordial soup of the internet it becomes incredibly important to think about whether we want to interact with them or not.
Do you keep your Facebook account?
Do you spend more time on YouTube?
Is Instagram improving your quality of life?
What is the effect of Netflix versus traditional TV?
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan introduced in McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. He went on to write about it in detail in the purposely misspelled: Medium Is the Massage.
The medium itself is what we should focus on studying. Not necessarily the content that is sent through it. The content is designed for the medium. So the limitations of the medium inform what the content becomes.
So the medium defines (or is) the message.
Considering that the medium is the message, let’s take a look at the maturation of past media.
Is TV making us dumb?
Because TV operates through segmenting bandwidth to allow specific “channels” airtime was incredibly scarce. Everything needed to be crammed in. It was mostly segmented by time. We could only run a few channels in parallel.
A show got 30 minutes then it was booted off for something else. Access was free, therefore advertising was necessary, cutting into the time even further.
This led to a situation where if something was going to be on TV it had to be provocative. It needed to regain your attention after an ad break and hold it until the next one because you can change channel anytime.
Look at the televised election debates, we have such limited time that every candidate gets 10 seconds to answer some of the most impactful and complex questions ever levelled in public arenas.
The Game of tHrones effect
How meaningful is that content ever going to be in that medium. This is why long-form podcasting is going to absolutely wipe the floor with limited bandwidth mediums like TV – it already is.
We are all smarter than media companies ever thought possible. It turns out, we don’t want 20min episodic slapstick and raunchy reality TV. There’s a hunger for hugely complex narratives with dozens of characters and arching storylines that go for dozens of hours.
We want to listen in on conversations by experts in their fields like a ‘fly on the wall’ in 2 hour long podcasts. Joe Rogan is the most influential interviewer ever to live, with more than 2 billion podcast episode downloads a year, and growing.
There just has never been a medium that allowed us to achieve it.
It wasn’t us, it was the medium.
These were the conditions of the medium. TV channels sold space to shows, shows want to be on the channels that held attention the best. It was all encouraged to become sensationalised. The more shocking or offensive something was the better it would hold your attention.
We cannot blame the shows for this, it was the natural destination of that journey. The medium required it from them and the ones that survived would have to fulfil that requirement. Now we are left with reality TV and news shows that make you scared and angry.
The real impact
Exposing yourself to TV meant you were going to be more exposed to this content. Over time it will subtly influence your views.
Look at Vine, a platform that experienced great success, it was a place to upload videos, but they could only be 6s long. You can’t make any meaningful points in 6s. Satire and slapstick comedy is all that fits the medium.
It appealed to the instant gratification culture that was growing at the time. Hurtling it to stardom, inspiring a whole subculture, and a rapid acquisition by Twitter. A platform already famous for instant gratification.
Netflix is cultivating a platform where every episode will end on a cliff-hanger because the “play next” automatic mechanism is incentivising it.
Is that what we want?
What are different social media formatted to incentivise?
- Instagram: Idealistic snapshots of gratifying perfection.
- Facebook: Linking out to untrue “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” content without fact-checking through the echo chamber algorithm of likes and shares.
- Twitter: Short-form quips with very little room for context. It is often more about the journey you are on than the destination in contrast to Instagram.
- TikTok: Nihilistic, often offensive, nonsensical comedy.
All of them require monumental volumes of content to sway their precious algorithms. Incentivising this whole onslaught we must endure every day to interact with the outside world.
These platforms are all predicated on likes, follows and shares. Quantifying your value into a few very isolated metrics. These are the foundation of the platform and inform every post on there.
Keep or cull?
Think about the rest of the platforms you use, what do the constraints of the medium do to the messages that will be propagated on them.
Furthermore, think about the media you send messages through. Do they promote the type of actions and content that you want to be creating.
Or are you obliging their medium in a toxic relationship with the dopamine they reward you with.
Take back control and define your own messages, don’t let yourself get moulded by the medium.