Fifty-six years ago, scholar Marshall McLuhan published “Understanding Media,” and 14 years ago I was assigned to read it as part of an undergraduate elective course, “Media, Culture and Society.” Clocking in at over 500 pages, McLuhan’s seminal work is a bit of a doorstop, but the text’s best-known phrase — “The medium is the message” — is one I haven’t forgotten. Even though McLuhan’s theory predates the digital age, his work still provides perspective on new communication platforms such as social media.
What McLuhan meant by this expression was that the actual content (i.e. this blog post) is beholden to the medium through which it’s being delivered (i.e. the computer or smartphone on which you’re currently reading). That is, the technology delivering the message (i.e. your printing presses, TVS, radios, websites, so forth and so on) inherently change how we communicate and, in so doing, alter or even supersede the message.
One of the most famous historical examples is the 1960 Richard Nixon/John F. Kennedy debate. TV audiences thought the good-looking JFK emerged victorious, while radio listeners believed Nixon to be the victor. (Some even go so far as to state that Kennedy would never have been president without the medium of television.) Same content, but what people thought had happened was very different depending on the medium they were using.
A more recent example is the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical CATS, whose stage version featuring elaborate costumes and much-lauded choreography appealed to millions for years, while its CGI-laden cinematic counterpart, well, didn’t.
Back to the matter at hand, all this is to say that the way your audience interprets, understands and engages with your content is influenced heavily by the platform you’re using and how you’re using it. From Facebook’s live video to Instagram’s filters to Twitter’s character limit, it’s important to look at each platform as a unique opportunity when crafting a story and to use each platform’s unique parameters to help shape your message. The rest of this blog series will examine how the technology behind each social media platform influences the way its users interpret its messages.
So what does this mean for communicators? First, anyone using Twitter has to adjust to the way they think about their use of language due to the character limit. This functionality has a direct impact on vocabulary, grammar and the complexity of the communication. Also, please be advised that navigating the brevity of Twitter lingo does take practice in the actual medium. Re-using website text just isn’t going to cut it.