Why the Medium Is Not the Message

59 Comments

Earlier this week, I got a chance to go on Leo Laporte’s Twit.tv. We debated the much-discussed New York Times story, which essentially said blogging is dead. It has been more than 10 years since I started to blog, and still, the act of blogging is consistently misunderstood.

It (blogging) isn’t a tool. It isn’t a product. It isn’t a news outlet. Blogging is just that: blogging, a simple act of sharing a part of yourself. You can do that through emotional outbursts, news, links, opinion, photos or videos. You can do it through Twitter, Facebook or a traditional blogging service.

As I argued about this on Laporte’s show, I pointed out that the reason we often have misguided theories (such as blogging being on life support) is that we confuse the medium with the message. In doing so, we often forget that the message is what’s important – not the medium that the message is delivered through. The message — the act of sharing — is the real product, metaphorically speaking.

Let’s look at the example of the news coming out of the Middle East. Just because most of the news alerts are coming from average citizens (as I’ve said before)  and are coming over Twitter or Facebook doesn’t degrade its value as news. The new medium (Twitter, Facebook) has replaced the old medium (newspapers, television.)

For traditional media outlets, this is particularly hard, mostly because they have a business model built to support distribution via the old medium. It’s a big challenge, as illustrated by Frederic Filloux and Mathew Ingram in their respective posts on newspapers’ ability to make money their web sites. But just because traditional media outlets have issues with their legacy-heavy business models, doesn’t mean the demand for the “message” has gone down.

The importance of the message over the medium extends beyond just news. Look at the Kindle. On the surface, it may seem Amazon (s AMZN) is selling Kindles. Actually, Amazon is selling books —  e-books, which incidentally make Amazon a lot of money. Again, the medium (the Kindle device) isn’t as important as the message (written word.)

Kevin Kelly, a well-known technology thinker, recently noted that the Kindle would be free by end of 2011. I would argue that it’s already free. Just download it on your iPad or Motorola (s MOT) Xoom, and within minutes, you’re busy reading. Netflix (s NFLX), too, has separated itself from the medium by streaming videos to a variety of devices as opposed to delivering DVDs (the medium) and profited from it.

When companies can’t really tell the difference between the medium and the message, they get in trouble. Let’s look at the much-hyped photo-sharing service Instagr.am and Flickr, the granddaddy of photo sharing services.

At their core, both these services are about social broadcasting and social validation, not storing photos. But today, Flickr gives an impression of being a staid photo-sharing product. Why? Because mobile has become key component of this sociability.

Instagr.am embraced the medium but focused on what was its core task: social broadcasting and social validation. At Yahoo, the mobile group made a Flickr mobile app, but they focused on the medium instead. The Flickr mobile app allows you to upload photos, but it barely acknowledges the community and sharing aspects of what makes Flickr tick. It has no way for you to engage with my pictures or even provide social validation by liking them. Furthermore, its user-experience is anti-social. Flickr’s own team would have focused almost entirely on what makes Flickr great. (Kellan Elliot-McCrea has outlined this in a Quora post.)

In all of these cases, the medium — a blog, Twitter, the Kindle, even the Internet itself — isn’t the important thing. It’s just a way of connecting people with things that matter to them, and with other people who matter to them. That is the real power, regardless of the medium.

What to read on the web:

Image courtesy Flickr user gbaku

[wufoo form=”z7m8z1″ username=”gigaom” height=”300″]

59 Comments

Ken Manning

I agree with the central point here, the medium is not the message, but I would content with an aside that was made. “Just because most of the news alerts are coming from average citizens…and are coming over Twitter or Facebook doesn’t degrade its value as news.” But it does. The the problem is that these posts are not vetted. When a journalist in the field is gathering i-wittiness accounts in the field, they have the ability to vet comments based on whether they think the person is exaggerating, confused, misguided, flat-out lying, etc. (This function is particularly important in aggregate.) Granted, this objectivism, designed to convey impartiality, can be abused or itself misguided. However, the fact remains that many Twitter (et al) posts are anecdotal at best – without some sort of vetting they may be useless, misleading, or even harmful as an information source.

Nick Trendov

TWiT is fun and a superb example of why the MEDIUM is the message.
You+TWiT are the MEDIUM and the MESSAGE and this combination reaches some people and not others.

While a MESSAGE or story is independent of storyteller or MEDIUM it is influenced by how a storyteller or MEDIUM delivers the MESSAGE.

Indeed, the MESSAGE is devoid of any value unless it reaches someone and is understood, which is the purpose of both storyteller and MEDIUM.

Interestingly here 2 TWiTs deliver the MESSAGE.

Cheers,
Nick

Mike Spear

Good post and I completely agree that the medium is not the message, and we need to not get hung up on tools and products.

You kinda sabatoge your own argument though by saying “The new medium (Twitter, Facebook) has replaced the old medium (newspapers, television.)”
Newspapers and television are just a medium. A medium that can provide a different approach to the message, enhance it with quality discussions, provide depth and tell stories.
Not that any of the other tools can’t do it, but Twit.TV is not going to replace Charlie Rose on PBS, or HARDTalk on BBC or the other way around.
Nothing wrong with either medium, they are what they are.
Each medium connects different people in different ways, to different events and a range of stories.
The old media has work to do on paying for itself and we’ll lose some players along the way, but they are still in the game.

Patrick Huber

The message is always irrelevant because the individual has the free will to decipher the message into any context they choose. The medium is the message because it organizes different contexts of thought(s) and optimizes it for a wider group understanding. Ebooks are the medium. It replaces books, which replaced oratory stories. The message is the stories/arguments themselves. If instead of reading, I was directly taught by Richard Dawkins as opposed to Stephen Gould my view of evolution would be shaped in the context of Dawkins. However, through the medium of books, my views on evolution can be broadened to include both. However, I could also use my time to read the Bible and Koran instead. In the case of evolution vs. religion, using the medium of books to extend the understanding of evolution becomes more important then the actual thoughts of Dawkins or Gould. Their message is lost in the arms race for the individual’s attention.

tolulope

whoa you all dont understand how much you help out my company with this share, its huge with plenty of logic…look out for VBC guys.

Judy Shapiro

Let me offer the singular dissenter voice as I do believe in this new “many to many” marketing world the medium and the message are in fact melding into a singularity of influence.

For example. Let’s take the case of Joe Consumer who loves fly fishing. Joe is part of an online community where he communes with like-minded fly fishing fanatics. Joe also has Facebook network that includes friends; some of who he knows loves fly fishing.

Now in this mini thought experiment, let’s imagine we are the marketing department of a casting/ reel company. We’re trying to reach people who love fly fishing. We can try and reach this audience through the “medium” of FB distributing messages via banner ads. We know that FB as a medium covers a lot of folks but we hope our “message” will be strong enough to break through the clutter to our target.

Or … we can take our exact message, participate actively all online fly fishing communities to get our story out.

Wanna take bets which program will deliver a better ROI?

The point is that in the “many to many” marketing model what we say IS intrinsically linked to WHERE/ HOW we say it.

I agree with your statement: “When companies can’t really tell the difference between the medium and the message, they get in trouble.” It IS messy. But while it is a WIP, the cleverest marketers are putting up with the mess to get better results.

Judy Shapiro

Arjun Moorthy

Om – may I suggest a slight alteration to your thesis: the medium is not the _only_ message. While I agree that the message survives changes in the medium there is much to be learned from the chosen medium.

The medium tells what is popular/convenient with the masses and informs us about technology adoption. This information is especially crucial to tech-centric types: entrepreneurs, engineers, VCs etc.

Om Malik

Arjun

How many Vcs, engineers and entrepreneurs are out there compared to non-Vcs, non-engineers and non-tech types. I think we have a problem in the valley that we look at the world through one lens, and that unfortunately is a problem.

Same goes for singular views of media business or television companies or publishers.

Arjun Moorthy

Fair point Om. But as with radio and television adoption wasn’t there much to be learned about how society at large was changing in its communication preferences and expectations, lifestyle etc by observing the adoption of these mediums?

Mark Jacobs

Great article. Was hoping I wouldn’t see facebooks awful commenting added to this site. Don’t be a bandwagon jumper Om. Disqus deserves support. Their product is better.

Marl Balou

The theme in this post has close affinity to what Ted Levitt wrote in his seminal HBR piece – “Marketing Myopia”

Ramesh Jain

When companies can’t really tell the difference between the medium and the message, they get in trouble — Analysis of photo-sharing is extraordinarily insightful.

David Sonnen

Malik’s article is encouraging. Maybe, just maybe, we’re reaching a point where we can understand the difference between effective messaging and shiny, new digital messaging toys.

Rick Schrager

I agree in part. “Blogging” began listing and commenting on sites found on the web; pre-surfing/web-logging evolved into a platform or medium of expression as the listed material took on themes and the commenting grew more personal. Eventually, the comments became the attraction and in many instances, the pre-surfed material vanished.

The desire to express is just as strong, but blogging has indeed been supplanted by social networking and comment oriented applications. The age of maintaining a site is sadly passing.

Gunnar Lium

To be fair, the medium has never been the message. I assume you derive the term from Marshal McLuhans “The medium is the massage”, which argues that the medium affects how humans perceive the message. In this case, it’s quite obvious that Facebook and Twitter are mediums which affect both the message and the perception. The way we communicate writing/reading a blog or a tweet is different from the way newspapers or television is created and consumed.

Doug Hadden

The comments about McLuhan seem to be taking a life of its own. Even though there wasn’t an intent to retrieve McLuhan in the original post – it did channel McLuhan who coined the “medium is the message” and “global village.” (It’s kind of like writing a blog entry that something is “deja vu all over again” without expecting people to channel Yogi Berra.)

Om Malik

Well put Doug. Anyway seems like we sparked a conversation. and you are helping it along. :-)

Francis Moran

Here in Canada, where Marshall McLuhan is revered damn near as God, I have been an apostate for so long that it thrills me to hear another debunk the commandment that the medium is the message. (And yes, I’ve read the other comments and understand that you weren’t intentionally referencing McLuhan. Still…)

McLuhan could not see over the horizon any better than the rest of us, and many of his predictions about how we would communicate in the future, based largely on his analysis of how emerging media would fundamentally alter that conversation, have become less compelling as time goes on.

Media formats, and specific applications that run on them, will continue to come and go. The successful iterations of both format and application will be those that succeed, as you say, in communicating high-value and resonant messaging; messaging that most certainly is shaped for, but most definitely is not superseded by, the medium itself.

Doug Hadden

Francis,

These are some interesting comments that could use further articulation. Do you have some blog posts or links? That’s because some of McLuhan’s ideas seem to have come to pass. (Granted, many havent’t, but it is kind of hard to predict what social media would do in 1964.) Some areas include:

1. The disintegration of the nation state – rise of international organizations (EU, WTO, NATO) and devolution/decentralization in government
2. Flattening of organizations and the move from job to role. And, from specialization/fragmentation to more general constantly-learning roles. (Basically what Tom Peters talks about.)
3. Re-tribalization (without the negative connotation to tribal) where people will connect in the global village appears to be happening through social media.

We’re at that point where “medium is the message” can be debunked because McLuhan’s predictions were a bit too future focused. In order to do so, we need evidence that the new medium did not result in any fundamental social change and that the content did not adapt to suit the medium.

bookworm73

Couldn’t agree more. I would even go as far as saying that the stories that we tell justify our very existence. I’m not trying to be melodramatic, but once the biological need to reproduce is achieved, what else is there to do apart from sit around the campfire and tell stories.

The only flaw, as I can see it, is that you need to be doing ‘stuff’ in order to create the stories that you tell, but the Kindles, the iPads and the Xooms of this world only facilitate what is a primal urge – the urge to communicate.

Doug Hadden

Om,

Don’t beat yourself up. There are many deep thinkers, like yourself, who provide very valuable insight and yet, fundamentally misunderstand what McLuhan meant.

1. Social is Medium is the Message

McLuhan did not speak about the importance of any single piece of content. The “medium is the message” refers to the aggregate effects of the medium. In social media, the medium and the message is about being social and being in network rather than unidirectional, i.e. PR. So, your observation “the message — the act of sharing” confirms the act of sharing is, indeed, the message. Your observations about the inability for traditional PR to function in the new media is bang on. PR fails to understand that when the medium is the message, using the old medium methods creates a visceral reaction in readers that the organization doesn’t get it. And, that legacy business models do not operate in the new medium.

2. Kindles and NetFlix
McLuhan pointed out that the new medium uses the previous medium for content during the initial stages. Television used radio and vaudeville content at first. That’s why so many people often do not realize that a new medium is a new medium. They assume that it is an adaptation of the previous – like “horseless carriage” or “wireless”. This is the case with the ebooks and streaming video. These are new media. It is difficult to understand what the effects of all new media will be in the early days. Case in point: movable type and the printing press. McLuhan explained how the phonetic alphabet created the “individual” and point of view. The printing press was responsible for specialization, scientific method, the nation state and more, according to McLuhan. This is fundamental change that validates the notion that the medium is the message.

3. What is this medium exactly?
Your last paragraph is full of insight. “A way of connecting people with things that matter to them” as the “real power” is exactly what McLuhan meant by the medium is the message. McLuhan did not have the benefit of seeing digital media in operation, so we can speculate about what he would have said about blogs, streaming video and ebooks. There seems to be effects, as in the middle east, of social media in general regardless of content type – text, audio, animation, video etc. But there also seems to be a flavour of effect exhibited by different content types and specific social media platforms. So, social is the major effect but there appears to be more than nuance effects when we look at Facebook vs. Twitter vs. blogs. McLuhan may have suggested that mobile “speeds up” the social effects. So, in this way of thinking, the failure of Flickr is to not understand this social speed up of the new medium.

4. What’s the next step?
McLuhan suggested that people tended to focus on the technology rather than the effect of technology. Hence, his 4 laws of media. Maybe McLuhan had it figured out. Or, partly figured out. Or, maybe the medium isn’t the message. My recommendation: read “Understanding Media”, “Laws of Media” and other works. On your Kindle.

Om Malik

Doug

I think you are assuming that I was even thinking about McLuhan. Someone else said that on Twitter as well. Sorry to disappoint :-)

Thanks for your comment though.

Joel

I agree – I use the phrase simply to mean “don’t blame mobile phones for peoples inane conversations (etc)”. The semantics & academics of what McLuhan meant don’t really come into it for me. As interesting as it is.

Joel

Jared Parmenter

Your article is titled “Why the Medium is not the Message” but you weren’t referencing McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message”? That’s pretty confusing, if not overtly misleading, especially since you’re writing for a highly informed, media-obsessed audience.

I’ll admit, there’s a ton of confusion over his phrase, but I’m sorry to see this article further adding to it. No one “owns” that phrase – but neither are you writing in a vacuum.

I’m hoping the conversation taking place in these comments will spur you to write another piece, adressing McLuhan’s predictions and using his language (correctly). That’s an article I’d love to read!

Regardless, I agree with the thrust of your point. Blogging will die only when people run out of things to say!

Om Malik

Doug, to repeat …. awesome comment.

Def. better than what I wrote. I am humbled that you are part of our community. That is just an awesome comment.

Doug Hadden

Thanks Om. Have had McLuhan, Haque, Tapscott on the mind (see: http://www.freebalance.com/blog/?p=1638 for more on social media and implications in government)

One point for Joel though,

McLuhan’s Laws of Media is a practical non-academic tool useful in the business context and strategy building. I use it (see McLuhan for Managers)along with tools like Blue Ocean Strategy, Gartner hype cycle, SWOT, zebra spotting, technology adoption curve etc in market and product planning. McLuhan provides an effective model or lens that helps strategic thinking.

alias

Thanks Doug I came to make a similar point and I’m glad you did it first, I wouldn’t have been neither so extensive or clear.

I would simply add that an easy way to understand “the medium is the message”, on its most basic level, is to question ourselves on how the introduction of a new medium (read: technology) affects our society. I believe he said his famous sentence to incite researchers to study the effects of the medium, rather than what was being said through it.

Also, I think McLuhan “medium” basically meant any technological innovation that could have a social impact. McLuhan himself referred to the electric light as a medium.

Jon

Great article thanks

I must admit I was under the impression Flickr was a photo sharing service. It’s safe to say I Don’t live under a rock or have my head Buried in the sand.

Om Malik

Borders had one simple problem — real estate and they were chasing barnes and noble. simple. at least i think that was the problem.

James Hicks

Great post Om. It’s true, we blog because we want to – it’s the act of sharing that matters – not the medium.

Arnold Waldstein

Your Flickr/Instagram example of focusing on value over format is perfect. I’ll share this with my clients.

One nit though about formats. Sharing on Facebook and the level of sharing that occurs on let’s say, Fred Wilson’s blog, are strikingly different. For AVC.com, the comments are truly part of the content and where the true value lies. The medium, in this case Disqus, informs the content by making it uniquely possible while other mediums may not.

On the light side, can’t think about your play on the “Medium is the message” without seeing this classic scene from Woody Allen:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpIYz8tfGjY

candace Locklear

Om, fantabulous post and well timed, too. What with tablets and other platforms coming out, this is really about helping the messages flow in the most current directions, right? Excellent example with Flickr as well. Thx!

Joel Huges

Hi,
Great article & very much agree. I do lot’s of training and when explaining (in this case) Twitter I try to get folks to understand that the medium and the message are different. If someone want’s to spend all day tweeting banalities then fine; but’s that is a message problem – NOT a medium one.

Joel

Santhosh Cheeniyil

The NY Times article talked about the “young” demographic drifting from blogging to sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The whole article was based on Pew Research Center’s study that showed that blogging among children ages 12 to 17 fell by 50%. (In 18-33 yr old group, blogging dropped just 2%). Seriously? Based on just this data, it is a fallacy to argue that blogging is dead! It is not about the message or the medium; the whole premise is wrong.

PhoneBoy

I enjoyed your appearance on TWiT!

I agree that the message is important. I also think it is important you choose the right medium for your message. It’s not blogging or Twitter, Facebook or Picplz. It’s knowing what to use when depending on what the message is and/or who you want to communicate it to.

ronald

Since the medium has influence on the message. Written content is different from spoken, twitter is different from email ….

To parse it a little different:
We know when we don’t know pretty early on(3.5 -4 years according to new research), Prof. Smith @AAAS. When do we know what we know and when to use it and how influenced it by the medium we choose to distribute it? How will it change “conversation”?
In other words medium might have a large impact on message.

Om Malik

Of course medium has an impact on distribution of the message. but that doesn’t quite change the core proposition aka the message.

Blogging in 140 characters is very different than say writing a traditional blog post or sharing a photo. But it doesn’t distract from the fact that it is “blogging” regardless of the medium and how it gets distributed.

ronald

Text:

Just saw a man shot

other medium:

Graphical picture of man shot

Same message?

Avatar reads news, monotone artificial voice, no facial emotions

Human reads same news, pronunciation, body language

Same message?

It’s not only how the message is delivered it’s also how the message is received. Or blogging not equal micro blogging not equal social media conversation. News Article not equal blogging, that’s just the mistake old media makes. You might think you send the same message but what is received/processed might vary wildly.

But what do I know.

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