For well-over half a century our nation’s best communicators have been fighting over theories regarding the influence of media in our society. Never has this question of the media’s influence been more pertinent than it is right now. It’s a time when Google serves search results incorporating input from your social circle, and Facebook optimizes your news feed based on what you ‘like’. So I ask, are we more affected by the message we absorb or by the media that portrays that message?
If you’ve studied the history of mass media in America, chances are that you’ve heard of Marshall McLuhan’s prophesies and watched them come true, even the prediction of his “global village” (the world wide web) during the 1960s. Marshall McLuhan, a very influential media theory pioneer, made famous the idea that “the medium is the message.”
But in a recent New York Times documentary called Page One, media columnist David Carr stated, “the messages are the media now.” His argument is that the same message can be found across various media, but it’s the actual original message that shapes us, not the medium in which we interact with it.
McLuhan originally taught that we, as consumers, focus so intently on the messages or content within the media, that we often overlook the actual effect that the media has directly on us. And over time, we as people adapt the structure of our affairs due to the media’s influence. McLuhan went so far as to describe the “content” of a medium as ‘a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.’
His was an interesting theory indeed, one that could certainly be found true when he wrote those words and before social media.
Carr, on the other hand, argues that we can read books, we can read books online, we can talk to friends, and we can tweet with friends. But what we’re reading and talking about is the same, therefore so is the takeaway afterwards. The media itself has less power than before. Carr says the message actually chooses the medium based on its need.
So which is it?
Well, I’d go so far as to say that the medium is the message is the medium. In essence, they both are right. Both the medium and the message play an integral in shaping the other as well as holding each side accountable.
Yes, if we think about the way that we interact with media, we understand that the same message conveyed through different channels can create vastly different results. If I watch a movie trailer in the theater, I can have a very different opinion than if I watch it on a friend’s Facebook wall directly next to their opinionated caption about that same movie.
At the same time, Julian Assange (WikiLeaks) was bound to create monumental impact on our society with or without the help of a certain medium. He used both traditional news outlets as well as social media in separate instances to leak classified information, and each case has seen rapid success in breaking news.
Perhaps message and medium will always have a symbiotic relationship, because one cannot exist without the other. Some messages will always be more effective than others; just as some media will be, too. But the infinite combinations of messages with media are bound to make this space exciting and experimental into the distant future.
How do you see the power shifting in favor of message or medium?
Photo Credit: Tinou Bao via Flickr.