Thursday, September 24, 2009

NEW Media: A Matter of Semantics or Reality?

You know how there are these people you've known, that, no matter how far removed you become from them, geographically or temporally, you still have constant little visits from them in your head? Well, one of inescapable voices, for me, is Professor Keller, a kind, unassuming, balding man who believed that deodorant was simply created by marketers and that any ethical, moral person with a shred of independence should avoid wearing it. He usually visits me with one sentence, a sentence he repeatedly referred to no matter what the topic of our public speaking or communications course was, a sentence coined by Marshall McLuhan: "The medium is the message."

So, let's just pretend he and McLuhan are right. If all of our media ARE the messages, and the question of the week is "what is NEW about NEW media", then is the answer, EVERYTHING? If every message being sent through my iPod, through my blog, through my status update, and my Scratch creation somehow becomes MORE about the medium itself, than the content of the message, does this mean that new media are changing the world in subtle ways all of the time?

A quick check on good old Wikipedia (which is a great example of the medium being the message), helps me see the radical nature of McLuhan's philosphy:

"Hence in Understanding Media, McLuhan describes the "content" of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. [5] This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time.[4] As the society's values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions [4] that we are not aware of."

Despite Prof Keller's resonant voice, I remain highly skeptical.

Sure the medium influences the message. But I have a feeling that new media, for all their hype and promise and true, good, real potential, have more in common with old media than we think. Content has always mattered, does matter, and will continue to matter. Humans do change and evolve, but fundamental aspects of humanity keep popping up in various media, such as our need for human social connection and interaction. Whether I send a love note written with quill and ink, or a love text on my little cell phone, I still have the same purpose in mind, and can still, hopefully, invoke a feeling of "awwww" on the receiver's end. On the other hand, some still find "an old fashioned love note" to be a much more highly romantic expression than a quickly rattled off text.

So what's new about new media? Is new media changing everything, or nothing?

I'm pretty sure it's somewhere in between.


  1. wow. good post.

    You know the catch phrase "content is king"? Blogger and SciFi writer Cory Doctorow modifies it thusly: "Content isn't king. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about."

    If I say "I love you" in a greeting card that I've mailed to you, the message is x. If I say "I love you" on twitter, thereby announcing it to the twuniverse, the message is y. If I say "I love you in a phone conversation, the message is Z. And so on. The content is the same, it seems to me, but the message varies depending on the format.

    Not only that, but sending a greeting card that says "I love you" means something different relative to the other, new media platforms available to me for sending the same content. The medium is the message, modified by the roads not taken. One one level, it seems to me, new media therefore changes everything, because the existence of twitter modifies the very content I want to send, even if the content ("I love you") is the same content two people would have exchanged a hundred years ago or more.

    On the other hand, "I love you" still exists as a meaningful expression of emotion--it has been modified and mediated by the medium by which we choose to express it, but the human emotions behind it exist as they always have.

  2. Nice illustration, Jenna. Thanks for teasing out some of these thoughts for me.