What Marshall McLuhan Knew About Social Media

I came across a great article on Brain Pickings.org the other day, featuring the Canadian icon of media thought, Marshall McLuhan. You may know McLuhan best for his famous quote “The medium is the message”. I’ve studied McLuhan for about as long as I’ve been involved in media and communications, and if you’re a media maker and communicator, you need to study him too.

McLuhan was a man well before his time. He pioneered new ways of thinking about how we communicate. I often wonder how McLuhan, who died in 1980, would have reacted to the Internet and new media. I think he would have been amazed, and probably would have done a fair bit of “I told you so”, too.

Watch the video below, it’s 8 minutes of vintage CBC gold, and listen carefully to what McLuhan says.

Interesting, eh? Did you think you were listening to someone from the 21st century speak? I did, the first time. I had to remind myself that piece was filmed in 1964. But what McLuhan says still holds today. Check it out.

It’s all about tribes. McLuhan brings up the concept of Tribes early on. He talks of us “banging the tribal drum” and how these new media (which at that time consisted of radio and TV) enabled us to have a voice and share our messages to wide audiences. TV and radio were the birth of one-to-many communication. When electronic media came along, the tribal drums started banging and we never looked back. Seth Godin talks of building Tribes around things that we are passionate about, and that those tribes will spin off other tribes, and that’s how people change the world. McLuhan heard the drums 50 years ago. Today, they are banging louder than ever. You can hear them, right?

Senses. In McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (the book from which the famous quote comes), he talks about how different forms of media enhance our senses differently – how film enhances our sense of vision, and that due to that enhancement we don’t have to work very hard to make up the rest. Radio, audio – similarly enhances our hearing sense, and our brain is able to attach the corresponding pictures to the sounds. But just look at the Web. Audio, video, text, every combination therein, coming at us all at once! It’s an intensely sensory experience, and it’s enhancing everything at once sometimes. No wonder it’s been challenging for people to find the best ways to communicate and connect in this space. There’s so much to offer the senses, but as McLuhan says – people’s understanding of the message is as much about how it is conveyed as the message itself. Chew on that for a bit. He was right.

Think differently. McLuhan goes on to talk about how electronic media affects us – “…the media is at the heart of our lives, because the media affects our senses.” He believed that media was not on the fringes of life, but that it was central to our lives…whether books, TV or radio, we got our ideas about life from what we read, watched or heard. And that the influence of media caused us to think differently. It had a profound effect, good or bad, on everything in our lives.

How has the Internet affected your life? Yeah, I thought so. Add the Web on top of the influence of traditional media, and thinking differently isn’t just a side effect anymore. It’s simply the way it is. There’s no turning back from or tuning out of the Internet. It’s here to stay, in some form or another, and it’s affecting everyone, every day.  Thinking differently isn’t a suggestion, it’s mandatory. McLuhan…you’re three for three!

Digital natives. That’s a new term for a concept McLuhan was talking about in 1964. At the end of the video (which unfortunately is cut off), McLuhan starts to describe the difference between a teenager and an adolescent (which in my estimation he means young adult – 19-25 ish?). Young adults in the 1960s were born at a time when TV was still new. Teenagers at that time had never known life without TV. This created a difference in the way they perceived and dealt with the medium. Today, we are living in a time where the digital natives and GenY’s are the same as the teenagers and kids of the 1960s. They were born into a world with computers. Some were not alive before there was an Internet. The rest of us, the GenXers and Boomers, had to come into it. We remember well a time before we had the Web. My 9 year old nephew has never known life without mobile phones and email.

What does this mean? Well in McLuhan’s estimation, it means we’re going to have to think very carefully about how we’re making tools for the generations coming up behind us. They don’t have as far to travel on the road as we do. Just like TV was second nature to me when I was a kid, the Internet is second nature to them. And perception is everything.

And McLuhan? Well, he was right again.

About

Susan Murphy is a writer, professional speaker, television producer, web site maker, teacher, digital media specialist, singer, and pet mom. She shows people how to tell better stories. You can also find her @suzemuse on Twitter.

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Paul Daigle
Paul Daigle

My mind is blown. How can this possibly be 1964??! McLuhan had a better handle on the future of media than we do living in that future. A true genius. I'm going to use this video in my work. Thanks a million Suze!! Goes to show that when we take the time to look at our history, we often find the answers for today.

Michael O'Connor Clarke
Michael O'Connor Clarke

Superb stuff, Suze, and exceptionally well summarized. I've been opening presentations with a slide of McLuhan for a while now - calling him "The Father of Social Media". I agree that if he was around today he'd no doubt be nodding sagely and smiling a knowing, "told you" kind of smile. Would be fantastic to know what he'd be projecting for the next generation of media consumers, were he only still around to tell us. Even extrapolating from some of his ideas through to what we have now is enough to boggle my mind completely. Thanks for this.

Heresiarch
Heresiarch

I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it's an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

Shawn McCormick
Shawn McCormick

Wow! This is awesome. I've heard lots of his snippets over the years but this stuff is nothing but amazing given when it was taped. His choice of "electronic media" instead of saying the television/telephone makes it so easy to close your eyes and imagine this was taped yesterday... Now I want to find the rest of the interview and see what happens to the adolescents!