Misinterpreting McLuhan

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made what would become his most widely repeated utterance in 1964 when he said “the medium is the message.” While that observation has profound implications for sociologists, it is a useless, even dangerous mantra for publishers whose business is predicated on the belief that the message is the message — and that they can make money by bringing certain messages to particular audiences.

What brings this to mind are a couple of bits I ran across — notably a Business Week article on how big media podcasts have shaken up podcast pioneers. But before I launch into my schtick, let me pay deference to McLuhan.

A fuller explanation of his insight can be found in an essay written by McLuhan scholar Mark Federman, who began his own analysis by quoting the original remark, made in the opening of his book Understanding Media: “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in an operational and practical fact, the medium is the message, This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs … ”

Wikipedia describes Understanding Media as “a pioneering study in media ecology. In it McLuhan proposes that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study … (and) postulates that content had little effect on society — in other words it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example — the effect of television on society would be identical.”

Who can argue with the first part of that observation in light of the phenomenal potential of peer-to-peer activity enabled by the World Wide Web? I take exception to the second point, but not here and now because that would open a values debate that is re-argued, with little hope of conclusive proof, with each new medium. Most recently, for instance, New York Senator Hillary Clinton has raised the specter of violent content in video games.

Publishers should not be oblivious to such debates, nor to the wider implications of the media ecosystem in which they hope to flourish. But if they hope to establish businesses then the navel-gazing and hand-wringing must take a back seat to finding audiences who will, in some way pay, for the content they hope to deliver.

That was the message of the Business Week article entitled Podcasts: David vs, Goliath, which describes how some pioneer talkers have been blown away by the advent of big media podcasts. But Business Week also noted that two folks from Georgia, Derek Colanduno and Robynn McCarthy, have been able to generate an audience around a “sci-fi and science news” podcast. Wow, what a concept. Niche audience values quality content. (Science may be a ripe niche. I came across an Associated Press article that said 450,000 people watched NASA’s webcast of the space shuttle launch, compared to 175,000 who watched on the July 2 peak of the AOL’s Live 8 concerts.)

So the medium is the message. And the message is the message. But how can the message be monetized? That’s the question that keeps me awake nights.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

(Note: I am entering this from an alien computer which has thwarted my effort to insert links. I’ll figure this out and fix it later when I get back to familiar equipment. DONE!)