What would Marshall McLuhan think about Twitter?

Posted: September 11, 2010 in New media tools
Tags: , , ,
Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970s

Image via Wikipedia

As I am currently preparing my presentation on Marshall McLuhan‘s influential 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, I am astonished to find that many of his statements and analyses can be applied to today’s digital media landscape. One of the current tools where I see the greatest analogy to his arguments is the use of Twitter to communicate and share news.

McLuhan’s central message, that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which they communicate than by the content of the communication can be applied to Twitter in several ways. First of all, Twitter as a tool is shaping the character and the content of the message by limiting it to 140 characters. The messages are short and compact, revealing for example just the headline of a news story. The limit on characters has also changed the way links are generally shared since URLs can be quite extensive. The use of URL shortening services such as bit.ly has thus increased heavily. Moreover, other media such as photographs can only be attached through an external service provider such as Twitpic. Following people’s ideas and sharing them has always been part of personal communication but is a form of communication now excelled by Twitter through retweeting. Sharing and forwarding what someone else is saying can happen instantly, internationally and without even personally knowing the person tweeting.

Twitter search fro #iranelection

Another one of McLuhan’s arguments can be identified looking at certain mass phenomena on Twitter. According to McLuhan,’electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement.’ The use of the hashtag, words or phrases prefixed with a #, lets Twitter users group posts together by topic, unifying millions of users around the globe. Although the hashtag is used by many users for fads, it is very valuable in grouping news about certain events and makes it easier to find people that have relevant information and follow them. This phenomenon could be observed when the presidential elections in Iran took place in 2009 and Western media was increasingly banned from reporting. The use of the hashtag #iranelection got people involved in the debate and offered an easy way for journalists to find news sources. During the protests following the elections, another phenomenon could be studied on Twitter describing McLuhan’s theory of electric technology fostering and encouraging unification and involvement: people all over the world started to green their avatars in solidarity and unity with the protesters in Iran.

The urge to show this unification and involvement can be related to McLuhan’s idea of the ‘global village’, a simultaneous happening where ‘time has ceased, space has vanished.’ Twitter, with its global and instant reach, allows for close proximity of people across any distance. Watching a news report about the protests in Iran leaves a distance between the protesters and the audience, the audience is rendered passive. Following a person in Iran on Twitter however, the news reaches you instantly and unfiltered. Additionally if offers the potential of a dialogue through direct replies or private messages. To say it in McLuhan’s words: ‘[…] instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experiences coexist in a state of active interplay’. The state of active interplay demands an active media participant and not just a passive media audience. And this in turn is shaping society from one where media consumption and production were strictly separated to a society consisting of what Bruns (2008) calls ‘produsers’.

Further Readings:

McLuhan, M & Fiore, Q 1967, The medium is the massage, Bantam, New York.


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