You may have noticed that the media loves to cover the media — it’s a narcissism that is not unique to the profession but certainly more visible because of its ready means of expression.
It’s partly media’s fascination with itself, that there is a lot of media this week about Marshall McLuhan: the philosopher prince of the media world. It’s the 100 year anniversary of his birth, July 21.
Mr. McLuhan came to fame in the 1960s thanks to the boom in television, which propelled his image and voice into many millions of homes, and also provided the source material for his insights into the nature of a nascent, but increasingly powerful media technology.
“The medium is the message” is his most famous quote and it used to perplex me; I could find no one that could adequately explain it. It was fun to say but its meaning seemed trite while alluding to a greater truth. It was fascinating.
It wasn’t until the fragmentation of digital media over the past 20 or so years, that for me at least, that quote made a lot more sense.
The mass age of media
Even the misspelling of the famous phrase made sense. “The Medium is the Massage” became the title for an innovative book produced by Mr. McLuhan and collaborators in graphics design. The title was a typo from the publisher on an early draft but Mr. McLuhan decided to keep it because it had accidentally produced an insight into media and the “mass age” the mass media age of our times. It helped establish the term “mass media” as an important concept.
I’ve put together some mostly short clips from YouTube that should serve as a decent introduction to Mr. McLuhan’s ideas.
The media mess age
Today, we might judge some of Mr. McLuhan’s ideas as obvious, but that’s because we are products of the mass media age; we are “media natives” in a way that few could have been in his time.
What would Mr. McLuhan think about the media world of today? Has much changed?
It’s certainly looks to be a very messy, very fragmented media world with many more types of distribution channels. But it’s ultimately a manageable mess because it’s digital. Computer technology can manage anything that’s digital no matter how messy — and that includes the challenge of publishing media through a mess of social networks and online sites.
A fragmented media world doesn’t mean that the old order has also fragmented. The increasing complexity in acquiring huge volumes of traffic is becoming a matter of scale and money. This favors large media organizations because they have scale and money. And so do the big product brands who are becoming media companies themselves, the best known example is Red Bull’s impressive magazine publishing venture.
Large brands such as Philip Morris used to have their own TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s, so today’s world would be a very recognizable world if Mr McLuhan were to visit (he died in 1980). He’d also see that the media still uses mass media distribution channels: the Internet, the most “mass” of all channels. And the production of media is still dominated by big media companies.
Social media hopes
What would Mr. McLuhan say about “social media?” Is it a distinct media or just one aspect of “media” as a whole?
The early excitement about the blogosphere was driven by an expectation that it would sweep away the institutions of mass media and its legions of gate keepers. But the armies of citizen journalists that were expected to democratize the media industry never appeared, or at least not in sufficient numbers to make much of a difference.
And social media failed to become the superior alternative to mass media.
It’s a shame but there it is, mass media is still very “mass” and alternative viewpoints and ideas continue to struggle to reach audiences. Much like in Mr McLuhan’s times.
But there are many new developments. Maybe these will show a key change with Mr. McLuhan’s times?
The reason the media autocracy is seriously challenged is not because of blogging but because their online business models don’t work. Google, and other low cost media companies, have driven down the value of Internet traffic. It requires massive volumes of traffic to produce profits from content. Which is why it helps if you can scrape your content for free, because you will need lots of it to make money.
A flip to the old order
Here’s an example of the newest type of new media company: Flipboard. Interestingly, it celebrates its one year anniversary on Mr. McLuhan’s birthday.
It employs about 32 people and publishes an iPad magazine that displays media content shared by your social networks. It freely collects content from many media sites and formats it in a very stylish design. It produced no revenues and no original content.
Here’s a traditional media company: The McClatchy group publishes 30 daily newspapers and 43 non-dailies, it employs more than 7500 people and generates $1.3 billion in annual revenues.
Its stock market valuation is $210 million. Which is about the same as Flipboard’s valuation back in spring when it raised funds — its valuation is far higher today.
The emergence of SoDOMM
Not only has social media failed to challenge mass media it is helping to amplify its reach. Several studies have shown that the vast majority of media shared through social networks is links to big media, sources such as New York Times, CNN, etc.
A large part of social media has become a sort of newspaper delivery service, and a willing promoter of TV programs and movies.
It’s an effect I’ve dubbed SoDOMM – Social Distribution Of Mass Media.
Another change that I’m sure that Mr McLuhan would be fascinated to see is that we have so much more media, in more formats, at more times of the day and minute, than at anytime in our history. What will that do to us? It certainly will do something, and something very big.
I have a media hammer and so does he. I bet that Mr McLuhan would immediately recognize that the Internet is a media technology.
The invention of the web browser allowed any media content to be published to any computer screen no matter the platform and location. Now, any computer screen can publish back — we now have a two way media platform that is going to have an enormous effect on every aspect of our lives.
New struggles for hegemony
There are new battlegrounds of ideas and influence emerging, which are made more complex because of the mess of media out there. How does government and commerce deliver “mass” ideas through this fragmented mess? It’s challenging because each media changes the message.
But it’s precisely this fragmentation of media that also makes it easier to target messages of influence at specific groups, because a fragmented media will collect very specific types of audiences — a marketer’s dream.
The rise of Tribal Man
I’m sure that Mr. McCluhan would see recognize a trend he called “the rise of tribal man” and the decline of the individual.
And that’s certainly true, we see modern day tribes of many sorts, most of us are members of many. And that was also the case fifty years ago when people belonged to an economic class, a job type, a neighborhood, a charity club, an alma mater, etc. Media companies tried to targeted every single tribe through specialist media but it wasn’t easy.
In today’s digital world it’s far easier to reach these groups. The very things that modern tribes use to define themselves — clothes, music, looks, speech, the places where they gather — are easily visible online. And what’s visible is trackable and targetable.
Also very visible: the mini dust storm of media we produce every day, just through clicking on like buttons, surfing sites and sharing stuff. It all ends up being faithfully reported in our news streams; every person is like a media company — both publish original content (and neither makes money from it .
Each person’s news stream is a mini magazine, and in today’s world that’s a huge source of free media content, that can be aggregated and sold to advertisers by the new generation of media companies.
While Mr. McLuhan had a tremendous innate understanding of the early days of mass media and its likely effects on society, there was little discussion of “why?”
Mr. McLuhan offered a clear cultural analysis and insight about the nascent modern media world– a difficult feat for a complex subject — but there is also a need for a materialist analysis for a more complete understanding.
Follow the money is what I was taught as a journalist because that’s where you’ll find a far more interesting story, and one that’s more accurate, too.
For some of the missing materialism, it’s worth turning to another pioneer thinker, the Italian journalist Antonio Gramsci. His work in the 1920s and 1930s was on the subject of “cultural hegemony” — the struggle for the control of prime ideas by governments, elite groups, and commercial interests — through the agencies of the media.
Hacking the brain stem
On this anniversary of Mr McLuhan’s birth I’m re-reading the prophetic “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. In this extraordinary 1992 novel, the future is a world where battles for cultural hegemony are fought with media technologies that try to hack straight into our brain stems — bypassing our natural defenses of logic and reason — and influencing us directly within the core of our sentient being, in our lizard brain.
It’s a scary future and one that’s not far off. You can see aspects of it in many places.
I see the many changes happening in media as the most fascinating and important subject around. Because media is how society “thinks” and decides how to move forward on important issues.
Software engineers have a saying: garbage in, garbage out. If you start with garbage data you will get a garbage result no matter how good your code.
As media companies struggle in their transition to a new business model the quality of our media degrades. That means the quality of our decision making degrades too.
We have so many important decisions to make: about the economy, the environment, energy, education, ecology, elder healthcare … and these are just the subjects that begin with the letter “e” — there’s plenty of others. Yet our abilities to make the best decisions is hampered by the poor economic health of our media companies.
And that’s why this is a hugely important topic, imho.
[Cross-posted at Silicon Valley Watcher]