This week in my “Communication as Social Change” course, we read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. Our brief assignment in response was to write a critique of an emerging technology in McLuhanesque fashion. Here’s my take on Twitter, a la McLuhan:
The latest form of electric communication demolishes the spatial dimension: Twitter. Twitter, as electric information, decentralizes: you can receive news from all over the world in an instant, a digital telegraph in 140 characters. As such, the Internet and its media extensions – including Twitter – have become the ultimate implosion of information and technology into the global village. Twitter users are a part of a single consciousness in which technology is a determining factor for social change.
You may think that Twitter is a cold medium: participation is key, with users creating a Twitter feed by typing in information that they want to share with the world, whether it be just textual information, a hyperlink, or a link to a photo they wish to share. In this sense, it takes some people to share information with others, making it a cold medium. On the contrary – Twitter is in fact a hot medium. The majority of tweets are generated from a small community of users, just as television shows have to be created by a small community of actors and producers, while other Twitter users merely follow people and soak up the information provided, passively intaking what’s been given to them, just as the majority of people interacting with television are sitting in their living room watching what’s already been produced. Through Twitter, one website can get its users all the news they need, world news, economy news, celebrity news, along with sales at their favorite stores and the latest pictures of your friend and her cat. Twitter has ended a person’s need to search multiple sites for disparate kinds of information and bundled it into one extremely hot medium.
Twitter is exactly what I was talking about when I said, “Our private and corporate lives have become information processes just because we have put our central nervous systems outside us in electric technology” (76). Just as electricity ended the distinction between day and night, microblogging in media such as Twitter has ended the distinction between one’s public and one’s private life. It has become the ultimate extension of man – not of a physical limb, but as a verbal and visual extension of one’s self. If the computer is an extension of the mind, then Twitter is an extension of the voice. But what are we hearing with it?
Coleridge penned in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.” We encounter millions of words on Twitter – but where is the actual information? Such a small percentage – some estimate merely 8% – of tweets contain anything with pass-along value. In this way it alters our consciousness and we learn to skim information and not take in every piece of visual and verbal information fully. We are also inundated with messages through the media that Twitter is constructed of. In becoming an electric and highly informative medium, Twitter is the ultimate medium within many other media: photographs, hyperlinks, and alphanumeric text on a microblogging platform on the Internet, within the computer, written in binary code, using alphanumeric symbols. But not everything is important and worth the world knowing.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Literature Network. 2010. Web. Jan. 22, 2011.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, critical edition. Ed. W. Terrence Gordon. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003.