Mike Connell

The Big Question: Is the Medium the Message?

By: Mike Connell | August 10, 2018 | 
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The Big Question: Is the Medium the Message?In the 1960s, Canadian communications theorist and philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, surmised: no matter how powerful or persuasive the message, it’s ultimately the media that have changed our patterns of thought and behavior.

The medium is the message.

I’ve always loved this concept. It’s one of few philosophical theories that I can get behind from both sides.

Which, of course, makes it super fun to discuss.

Think about it.

In a world dominated by the internet and social media, McLuhan’s postulations are even more relevant today than they ever were.

The format or channel we use for the story or message in question has become (or was always) part of the missive itself. It changes how audiences engage, share, and generally relate to the content.

Is that important? Absolutely. More important than the message? That’s the question!

What say you?

In a world where we communicate with emoji, text, live video, long- and short-form written content is the medium, itself, the driving force?

Or, is the message—the story—the main point, regardless of how it is told?

We know stories are important. Storytelling is huge. But how those stories are told is constantly evolving.

Aren’t Big Questions like this fun? Let’s get on with it!

Is the medium the message, or is the message, itself, paramount?

Is the Medium the Message? Um, Duh

One of the first responses to this query was my favorite.

Dennis Chong summarized the conundrum succinctly:

Is the medium the message? You have the vehicle—the medium.

So, what now?

You still have the medium—the TV cameras, the camera crew, the reporters, the editors, the director, the sound crew, and so forth.

Got it?

You still have the medium.

So… ????????????????????

In other words, the medium would be worthless without the message. It would just “be,” right?

The Medium is the Message: Context

According to Theo Ellis, the medium IS the message, and our social networks prove it:

Let’s take a platform like Instagram for example. The medium is about posting photos, sharing your day, or sharing something visually with others.

Sharing a photo on instagram of, let’s say, a piece of art will be treated *much differently* than it would be on Twitter or Facebook.

The results will differ because the medium dictates the impact of the message.

Each platform causes you to act differently because *the context is different, even if it’s the same content taken from elsewhere.*

So the medium is still the message, hence why the context dictates how your message will be perceived.

The Message is Paramount. Kind of.

Jodi McLean disagrees. Or does she?

As a business advisor who works with my clients on perfecting their business pitch, to me, the message itself will always be paramount.

That said, we have to be able to deliver that pitch, or that message, in a variety of styles and dialects.

This is how I have become absolutely literal in my written word so that there is little room for interpretation.

(I’d like to say “so that there is NO room for interpretation,” but that isn’t realistic. You can’t control another person’s interpretation, no matter the intention nor the medium in which it is delivered.)

The pitch or message is rarely flawless and completely objective and is going to be subject to interpretation through dialect, delivery style, platform, environment, mood, body language, Mercury in retrograde, countless factors.

So a business pitch will evolve in an effort to be relevant and pure in any situation.

The deliverer of the message will need to interpret the environment in order to deliver the message relative to the current situation.

That is why an important message must always be refined to its simplest form, understandable to any four-year-old with an iPhone and any octogenarian with a hearing aid.

We won’t get started on the whole iPhone-toting four-year-old question, but your point is a great one, Jodi.

The context of the situation, the environment in question, etc., all play into the delivery, but the message itself should provide a solid foundation from which to build the conversation on.

The Medium Won’t Save a Weak Message

Joel Schwartzberg is all about the message:

McLuhan was right to point out how media strongly influences the *format *of a message.

Obviously, there’s a world of difference between a Tweet, a *New Yorker* expose, and a local television news broadcast.

But the most crucial element has and will always be the POINT itself because the success of a point is ultimately measured by its impact on an audience, not by the vehicle through which it traveled.

That’s why, in a brainstorm meeting, the answer to the question, ‘How do we effectively convey this message?’ is never simply video or social media.

If the message is weak, no technological or viral approach will save it.

If it is strong and truly a POINT—something often misunderstood and overlooked—then it will have an impact on multiple media.

Just look at the many ways commencement speeches impact audiences both at the event and much more broadly.

And they begin with—and hinge on—the oldest form of communication there is: a simple public speech.

Whether that message traveled through broadcast or broadband, it is the message itself that resonates, not the medium.

As a result, we need to tailor our media to best relay the message, not so much tailor the crux of our message to match the media.

Stories Are Transformed By the Platform

Sandy McKenzie actually studied McLuhan extensively during her various communications and PR degrees (which has also been a subject of debate: Online versus traditional learning in our industry is a fun discussion) and wrote an entire thesis on the subject (McLuhan’s Relevance in Today’s Society: A Look at Social Media on Mobile Devices).

From Sandy:

My research led me to perform a textual analysis of posts on Twitter and Flickr to determine whether the medium is the message and other ideas posed by McLuhan hold true for computer-mediated communication.

Through my research, and now beyond, I have found that the medium greatly impacts the message.

From Facebook’s live video, to Instagram’s filters, to Twitter’s character limit, stories can be transformed by the platform.

It is important to look at each platform as a unique opportunity when crafting a story and to use a platform’s parameters to help shape your message.

Instead of thinking of social media as a whole, think of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., as separate media that lend themselves to distinct content.

Twitter’s character limit, for example, can help you make strategic edits to connect with audiences in a more concise manner.

Therefore, rather than merely reposting content across social media, it is key to take the time to suit your content to each platform whenever possible.

This will help audiences gain more from your stories, and it will incentivize them to follow you on multiple accounts.

Tailoring the Message

There was also some fun back-and-forth in the Spin Sucks Community on this one.

Our very own Laura Petrolino provided some insightful commentary:

The medium affects how the message is transmitted so as senders we have to consider the medium in order to ensure the final message maintains integrity.

If you master the conduction process of a certain medium, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better or worse, it just means you’ve learned to use it effectively to conduct the message in a way that maintains as much of its intention as possible.

Think about Abe Lincoln and his use of the telegraph. It gave him power because he learned how to use it to effectively conduct his message.

Otherwise, it would have just been a barrier to proper communication.

The Medium is the Message: Shiny Object Syndrome

Heather Feimster agreed wholeheartedly:

“The medium is the message” insofar as we tailor our messages for the medium through which we send them.

For example, Abe’s message via the telegraph was probably different than if he’d given it orally to a crowd.

I’m echoing Laura Petrolino with the conduit argument here—we all work to maximize each medium’s strength while recognizing its weaknesses in crafting our messages.

One challenge that we face in today’s plethora of medium choices is that we can easily become reactionary to said media’s analytics and testing and ROI, that we don’t stop to consider whether our audience really wants the information delivered that way, or if we are just allowing tech companies to direct how we share our messages.

It’s the “shiny object” phenomenon. A new app comes out, or a new social media network, and we spend time and money to stay “up to date.” But does our audience care about the medium as much as we do?

Or do they care more about the story?

It’s All About the Audience

Exactly, Heather! Such a great point and one that too many marketers miss (or avoid?).

Christopher Penn agrees, and gets the last word on this week’s Big Q.

Medium. Message. How, when, why.

But the “who” often get overlooked:

There’s the medium, which is how the message is distributed.

There’s the message, which is the content.

And there’s the masses—the people processing the data.

It maps back to HJ Leavitt‘s Applied Organizational Change paper in 1964—people, structure, task, and technology, later simplified to people, process, technology.

What (the message), and how (the medium), are important, but what tends to happen is that people focus so much on these that they forget the rest.

Who (the audience).

When (the context and timing).

Where (the channel).

And most important—and least addressed by too many marketers—WHY?

Here’s the bottom line: the smartphone is one of the most powerful mediums in the world.

In the Google Play store, there are 3.8 million apps to download. In the Apple iOS store, there are 2 million.

Thus, our audience literally has millions of other choices (the medium) to spend attention on (the message) besides our crappy marketing communications.

Unless communicators pivot to focus on the audience first and foremost—who and why—they will continue to badly miss the mark.

The Next Big Question

We recently discussed whether you work to live or live to work.

The Big Question has also addressed why so many of us are unhappy at work (and, by association, why so many of us love what we do!).

Surprisingly, we’ve never actually asked a big question about work-life balance.

Although balance is a fairly simple concept, defining what it means to you, much less achieving it, is anything but.

For me? Balance is about breathing room. It’s not about focusing on one thing more than the other, it’s about the space in between.

Work is important (to me). Family is important (to me). Health and wellbeing are important (to me). My hobbies and creative endeavors are important.

Mashing them all into a day, a week, a month, or a year isn’t the answer.

Running from one to another to ensure I’m “addressing” the priority in question doesn’t work either.

Knowing that I’m doing my best and being able to take a deep breath and look back at the day, week, and year with satisfaction is balancing.

Taking another breath and looking forward. Looking towards the next day, week, and year with hope and inspiration is balancing.

I won’t always “achieve” balance. But I need to be working towards it, rather than avoiding or regretting my lack of it.

How about you?

What does work-life balance mean to you, and what do you need to do to achieve it?

You can answer here, in our free Spin Sucks Community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

About Mike Connell


Mike Connell is the director of client services at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. He is also a contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks, the leading source for modern PR training, trends, and insights. Find more of Mike's musings on his blog, Communative. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

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