Twitter according to McLuhan

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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:

Twitter: Our Lives as an Electronic Process

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.

Works Cited
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.

Understanding McLuhan’s *Understanding Media*

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This week, in History of Communication Theory, our class it tackling Marshall McLuhan’s seminal text. I’m also leading discussion, so writing this ahead of time will hopefully give me an opportunity to think through some of my ideas about the text and digest some (’cause you know you’ll never understand all!) of his thoughts.

On the whole, this is a book that I’m struggling with, and not because of its size. Two reasons: one, he’s written the chapters in a very mosaic fashion, not linearly, as most books are. This is a different stream of thought to adjust to as the reader that really inhibits comprehension. Ultimately, I see this as a choice he made to further his argument about media. The bits and blurbs fit together sort of like television, and a lot like the way that we now read on the Internet: starting with one idea (browser tab), flitting to another (let’s say your inbox, when it pops up saying you have a new message), then back to your first idea (browser tab), and then following a new train of thought from one idea (let’s say to a hyperlink you open in a new browser tab to find out more about a specific term mentioned). We all do this! McLuhan was certainly ahead of his time with his assessment of how media impacts us. While he couldn’t have predicted what media would come out, he already knew how it would change our lives.

My second issue with McLuhan is his methodology and presentation of ideas (not to be confused with writing style). I’ve often been frustrated reading the book, wanting to shout out to him, “Where is your evidence?” or “Where did this information come from?” and “Did you just make this up, or did that really happen?” It seems that the book is semi-truth and semi-probing McLuhan’s mind with what he thinks happened historically or what construction of an event best works with his ideas. He’ll state what seems to be a fantastic idea at the end of the paragraph, and then – poof, onto another subject. Essentially, I always want to know more information than he’s provided. Part of this is my craving for well-structured writing – I never did well with James Joyce or Virginia Wolf in undergrad – because to me, as a researcher, those are the most valuable presentations of work, and well, because that’s how our faculty expect us to write. It’s not such a crazy concept!

So while there are structural issues that affect my perception of the text, I’m not totally criticizing the work. It’s not a widely-read book in Comm studies for no reason – the man had a lot of key insights into media issues that still ring true today, in a world where I can’t imagine how media could be any more pervasive in our lives. I can’t tell you how many times I noted in the margins that his ideas still applied, such as in chapter four where he describes technological somnambulism. In other areas, it is remarkable how he was able to predict effects that took place well into the future, including his quip in the introductory chapter for the first edition of how with electricity, “the globe is no more than a village” (6).

After 500+ pages of examples of it, I’m seeing how the medium is the message. While I think that media today made this concept more complex, there’s merit in his point. The message of the theatre is not the story line of the play, but the fact that what’s presented is a “high” art form that we should appreciate and likely can’t understand all of the ideas, unless we’re in the highly literate class. The internet, though, is not so easy to pin down. It’s clearly a medium with many media contained within it: television, radio, photograph, alphabet, etc. How does this affect the message? Can the messages from those media be contained within the message of the internet, or is it another idea entirely? McLuhan’s editors in the critical edition talk about how the message of a medium refers to the effect that it produces in its audience. Obviously, there cannot be one single effect that we understand as the message of the internet. One effect that I can see is the idea that everyone feels they now have information that is appropriate for the world to know (or to be preserved). With the advent of blogs a little over a decade ago, the message is that everyone’s private journal thoughts are fodder for discussion, that their ideas are important or relevant, and others should have a chance to read them, hence why people publish blogs. Same now with social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc.: The message is that everyone’s daily activities and special milestones are worth preserving digitally and being put out there for the world to see.

Work Cited:
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Critical Ed. Ed. W. Terrence Gordon. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003. Print.