“The medium is the message”

A half a century ago Marshall McLuhan coined this iconic phrase in his landmark book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In 1964, the most prevalent media were all broadcast: movies, radio, television, newspapers and books all shared this trait. Only letters and the relatively new telephone allowed for interactive communication and discourse.

Fast forward to today and almost the exact opposite is true. The power of broadcast media, while still strong, is not the all consuming grasp it once was. Interactive and collaborative media has become the norm, not the exception. So, then the question begging to be answered is that if the medium is the message, how has this new paradigm controlled “the scale and form of human association and action” as McLuhan put it in The Extensions of Man?

Each member of the populous at large is now an amateur broadcaster, but every message is inherently biased. There is no Walter Cronkite anymore. They are not impartial because each message is the vessel for the opinions and emotions of the individual, not the organization. There is no peer review. There is no newsroom for social media.

Each broadcast is imbued with the raw emotions of the individual who generated it. Individuals who often have no where else for these emotions to go. Individuals who think that their Tweets, posts, and other broadcasts are making an impact. That they are swaying public opinion. This herculean empowerment of the individual through social media has produced behavior that has wider reaching sociological impacts. 

The first behavior is what I will call “emotional non-action”. That is, since the medium is the vessel for the emotion of the individual, the individuals themselves feel accomplished. That through their drop of water in the ocean they have been heard by the world. 

The second is a behavior that a colleague of mine recently compared to road rage. When someone is in their car, they feel safe. So when a fellow driver cuts them off or makes some other driving mistake, they are emboldened to say similarly awful things, e.g.

“Don’t cut me off you fucking son of a bitch.”

This is, however, what has become a completely acceptable way for one to conduct themselves in public on the Internet. And not just in developer and technology communities where it has been acceptable for more than a decade (remember: don’t feed the trolls), but in our larger society as well. The latter trend has only seemed to reach a critical mass in the last five years.

A good example of this is the tragedy that happened at the Electric Zoo last year here in NYC. If you are not familiar with the incident, Mayor Mike Bloomberg cancelled the last day of the three day music festival because two people had died from drug overdoses. This, while a tragedy, was largely outside the control of any one party. The Internet (through Twitter) decided to blame the dead.

Can you imagine what this did to the parents of these children? Yes. Their children. Can you imagine in your entire life ever saying something as mean and hurtful to their face? Neither can I. But somehow there are millions — literally millions — of public statements like this.

We are losing something important

There is an upward trend in this behavior that is undeniable. Within a few years it will be part of our cultural DNA as a society. Maybe we are at a generational divide. Maybe things are going to get worse until they get better. Until those individuals who grew up being bullied by this behavior have children and they can pass along the next version of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. I hope that happens because what is most important is that we hold onto our ability for civil and public discourse on subjects that we may disagree.