The Medium is the Message

This week I watched portions online of the’s summit at the Newseum in DC “Media and Democracy in the Digital Age” that was focused primarily on “Internet neutrality.” This is a buzzword for regulating the Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) so that they don’t edit content nor serve as gatekeepers in monitoring service or deliberately exclude segments of the population.  I didn’t see the afternoon breakout sessions so I missed the full scope of the conference.   Of course, as the closing speaker mentioned, they largely were preaching to the choir of supporters who were there.  The corporations, who are pushing to gain more profit from controlling access to the Internet beyond simply charging reasonable fees, were not there.  They were busy lobbying the Congress to restrict the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has suddenly sprung to life after years of inaction.

I won’t rehash or summarize the conference since you can see the videos and transcripts online:

I did feel that Bill Moyer’s in his next to last Journal broadcast, that included an interview with outgoing FCC Commissioner Cobb, spoke more eloquently to the issue.  His web site provides a much more in-depth review of the issue:

But both programs elicited a sense of déjà vu of the 1960’s author Marshall McLuhan, who created a stir with his series of books that were published long before the Internet was even thought of.  His famous quote of “the medium is the message” was a popular buzzword even though most folks didn’t understand his commentary on the media.  I had forgotten, but the actual title of his 1967 book was The Medium is the Massage.  He was amused by a printer’s typo and decided to keep the title because it more accurately described the meaning of the book.  In other words, the medium (by which he meant TV, radio, or print) shaped not only the format of the content but also its impact upon society.  In more technical terms, the medium produces an effect of total sensory experience, or Gestalt psychology.

So what has that to do with the current buzzword of social media? A recent outgrowth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, the term has become almost synonymous with Facebook and Twitter although there are many other platforms.  Of course, we have web sites and blogs, each of which has a different format, business model and produces a different experience.  I guess that I’m a contrarian in that I think that however much you may mess with the presentation or the format, the meaning of the content (or the message) is what is most significant.  I guess that’s the result of years of arguments with the graphic designer of my magazine as to which was more important.  The balance between jazzing up the design to get people’s attention (and win awards) or emphasizing the text and avoiding too much clutter and “cute” stuff is sometimes difficult to achieve.  That’s why I think the WWW will not eliminate print publications; it’s just another addition similar to what we saw with the expansion from radio to television.

As writers are more involved in every step of publishing now and not concerned just with the text, we are stretching our understanding of what it means to effectively communicate in different media and how our writing outlook must change.  Writing copy for a web site is very different than writing features for a magazine.  Television scripts are different than writing a stage play. It is more than just a variation in tone or style.  It is a different approach to writing and with different goals.  A lot has been written about how the Web is much more “interactive,” and “traditional” media that is transcribed online now offers “comments” sections for feedback.  But the new media are more than just feedback or “two-way” communications.  As we noted in the political campaigns, they are a “viral” medium of communications that grows like a virus and spreads without direction or control.  The fact is that no one REALLY knows how the Web is going to develop in the next decade even though people are betting millions on it and evolving new platforms, or models, every day.  The progression from the iPod, to the iPhone, to the iPad is just one example, but the real breakthroughs were iTunes and the AppStore.  They changed the music industry as well as the software business so they “messaged,” or manipulated, the content they were providing so that it was a transformation and not just an innovation in technology.

So what are you supposed to do if they didn’t teach that in Journalism School of your Master of Fine Arts Program?  Well, there are many opportunities for continuing education programs, both online and in person.  We have evolved into a society that requires lifelong learning.  I have an 83-year-old friend who is struggling to learn how to use a computer, and he finds it very frustrating.  For years he just didn’t want to be bothered with learning a whole new set of skills, especially since he doesn’t know how to type, but that’s not necessarily a roadblock anymore.    He finally conceded that he doesn’t want to miss out on a big new world out there that was beyond his normal experience, and so he has to grow or get left behind.  As writers, we have to do the same.


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