The medium is the message


For me the phrase was the beginning of a life long interest in the interaction between people and the media they use to communicate. A book by a chap called Marshall McLuhan in the mid 1960s. Back then it was difficult to understand the impact the use of different forms of communication would have on people.

The 1960’s and 70’s were an era of optimism. People could communicate better than they ever had, we could share ideas, ideals and create a far better world. Somehow that wonderful optimism clouded over the meaning that we would be changed for ever by the ways in which we communicate.

My weekend theme of ‘social media’ turned the weekend for me, into one of remembrance, wondering and finally a feeling that we are at another cusp in human communication.

Comparing ways of communicating and how they can resemble each other, yet be so different has had me allow several cups of coffee to cool beyond sense.

I was thinking about the humble telegram, strips of letters pasted onto a sheet of paper and hand delivered to the recipient. Of necessity they were brief. Charged by the word. Intended to carry  messages that were important and urgent. To convey meaning clearly and concisely.

Today in the communication medium of brevity, we have Twitter. And there the similarity ends.  Twitter audience is far from the individual to whom the envelope with the telegram was hand delivered. A Tweet is spread far and wide, to whoever should want to receive those ‘pearls of wisdom’, idiocy or satire from the source. The source themselves may be known or unknown. Seldom is a Tweet of importance and urgency, unless some breaking news story is being spread by this means; but that is a small percentage of the volume.

So maybe Tweet-dom is the ‘15 seconds of fame’ for some. Oops, does that means the medium has speeded up the 15 minutes to seconds?

The path of thought took me away from my original intent, to write something more analytical of social media. Just as a Tweet can distract one for a few seconds.

The cusp? Moving from e-mail which is a self-contained message from one to another or others. They contain content, appendices of documents, pictures, and often also nasty little ‘invisible’ attachments meant to burrow in and cause havoc.

How many people do you know who have to set up ‘rules’ in their mail handling software to screen out the unwanted ‘spam’, to filter by importance the messages related to work and private life, to filter out the computer generated messages from those sent by real people?

I recently saw a poster describing how many e-mail messages fly across the ether in a 24 hour period. The number was so long with too many 0’s at the end to be comprehensible to my little mind. Laws in so many countries now demand that e-mail be archived for a specified time frame as they are able to be used as legal evidence in civil (and criminal?) matters. The sheer volume of backing up, surely means that retrieval other than by specific date is a tedious and complex issue.

The effort, cost and risk associated with this overabundance of messages means surely that very soon we will be using other forms of communication, probably some of those currently being developed, tested, used by the ‘early-adopters’.

What will they be?

Back in the early 1990’s I was introduced to a nice piece of software that allowed a group of people to have a ‘conversation’ online, with the comments flagged by person and date/time.  One could leave for a meeting, return and catch up on the conversation, add to it, and go home for a well-earned rest, only to be able to pick up the thread of the conversation again the following day.

It arrived at time of another divergence in technology, and so was lost for general use. When ‘white-boarding’ arrived I smiled, here was my old friend ‘the chat’ back with new technology, but enabling the same behaviour. You find a simpler version on so many desktops, the office communicator, allowing quick chats between people. This form is ephemeral however. It has its uses, just as the ‘chat with a record’ also has its place.

I predict we will be seeing so many more ways to communicate, ways that are supposed to make us more efficient, but which if not handled carefully will ‘drown’ us in too much information, just as e-mail has done.

So for me the challenge is not what medium to use, but how to make it relevant.

Hmmmm, I see another cup of coffee has cooled beyond comfort.

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8 thoughts on “The medium is the message

  1. Great blog about a complex topic. I find the communication tools we have are prohibitive to productivity.

    I for one find that no sooner does an email arrive that I drop everything and read and reply, and therefore lose my track of thought regarding what I was originally doing. The same applies with facebook, twitterm bbm and personal email, all linked to my blackberry. The damn thing doesn’t stop beeping, and fearful of missing something urgent – it rarely is – I pick it up, browse/read and lose track of work again.

    don’t even get me started on how much paper we are not saving, as everybody and their aunt prints out the same email, over and over again. Only to discard it after a meeting, barely read, but used to doodle on

    I can’t help but think we are going backwards, and as for going green in this paperless society, I don’t think so

  2. Sorry, I didn’t do the challenge this week. I’m very grateful for the bit of social media that I enjoy, but would hate to be inundated with masses of e-mails every day. I just keep to FB and apart from the blogs, it’s just friends and family messages. It’s great being able to keep in contact so easily from anywhere in the world.

  3. How to make it relevant, indeed. That one thing has me vexed and shut down from writing lately. There seems to be so much already out there. It’s all being done. What to offer to feel like it is worthwhile to do?

  4. I think we are “over-communicating” nowadays, without saying much important! The amount of information that I receive daily is also sometimes just to much to cope with and to take in!

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