Understanding Online Social Media – 50 years later
This post is the second part of my notes on Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The first part you can read here [or on the McLuhan galaxy blog here
The Part II of the book is maybe a little bit less interesting from journalism point of view, and a tad more philosophical than the first part. However, there were some interesting viewpoints that should have relevance also in the world of online media. Some of the ideas will still require a bit more thorough thinking, but I just present them in their initial stage.
Spoken word is the basis on humanity, one could say. There would be quite little left of our society or culture without spoken word. Spoken word is also multiple times more powerful than the written equivalent. A word can’t be written in many ways, while it can be pronounced at least in fifty different ways. Each of the ways expressing a different feeling and meaning. What written word spells out in sequence, spoken word can express just by pronunciation and emphasis.
According to McLuhan, in addition to the limited powers of written word, electric media seems to favor the spoken word. Which is quite obvious and natural in the cases of radio, telephone and, indeed, TV. For online media environment, on the other hand, especially interesting is the connection between written word and online social media. And how this relationship relates to the idea of detribalization (and eventually re-tribalization) of man. As McLuhan notes, phonetic letters and numbers were the first means of fragmenting and detribalizing man, separating the individual from the group. Wouldn’t it be then, that the electric social online media is the first step back, connecting the individual back to the group, re-tribalizing man?
[…]all people are involved with all others at all the time
The tribe is an extended form of a family of blood relatives. The typographic age replaced tribe by an association of men trained to be individuals. Typography gave man, according to McLuhan, the gifts of detachment and noninvolvement, the power to act without reacting. This power to separate thought from feeling separated literate man from tribal world of close private and social bonds. In the electric age, however, this separation of thought and feeling has become unusual again. This would indicate, that literate man is becoming post-literate man, and detribalization is turning to re-tribalization.
For electricity not only gives primacy to process, […] but it makes independent the source of energy from the location of the process. In entertainment media, we speak this fact as “mass media” because the source of the program and the process of experiencing it are independent in space, yet simultaneous in time.
Another interesting comparison is the one between physical and electric transport. Before the wheel, the main transport methods were either by pack animal – or women, or by waterways, river and sea. Which in turn had a big impact on the location of big cities. After the wheel, there had to be roads to roll on, which in turn enabled towns to be built inland. With motorcars roads became super highways, which in turn connected cities together and disconnected the inhabitants from the countryside. Similar development happened with airways, where actually the airplane disconnected the traveller from travelling. The travel begins only after the landing. So basically when every place becomes no place, travellers become nomads.
Electric media is then like super highway of information and paper media is like the country roads of information. Online media on the other hand resembles airways, and accordingly disconnects the information from place, makes the readers nomads. As McLuhan says, new speed and power are never compatible with existing spatial and social arrangements.
Participation is money
The Western world of prices and money is supported by the visual culture of literacy, says McLuhan. Money is used to store and translate communal work, the work of a barber to the work of a doctor. Writing helps to establish currencies and supports uniformity of commodities. An opposite of Western money is Tribal money. While the Tribal work is not specialized, the money is not specialized either. Tribal money can be eaten, drunk or worn. It is a commodity.
But with electric interdependence of all men on the planet, money begins to be less and less a means of storing or exchanging work and skill. Automation represents knowledge more than physical work. While the movement of information replaces work, also money as storage of work becomes more storage of information in forms of credit card. The trend toward inclusive information approaches the character of tribal money.
Where the whole man is involved there is no work.
Work began with the division of labor and the specialization of functions, and as such work doesn’t exist in the nonliterate world. In the age of electric media, the idea of work moves towards dedication and commitment, as in the tribe. When the information is instant, the job of fragmented specializing is ending and man assumes the role of information gathering.
At the same time, electric media promotes participational and do-it-yourself aspect of the electric technology. Electric appliances are more devices for decentralized work than for saving labor. And they are available to everybody.
In online social tribe, there is no work and there is no money, but the value is transferred through participation. Participation on the other hand has a very strong social aspect to it.
Telephone decentralized every operation, fused the functions of composition and publication. At the same time, telephone demands participation of our senses and faculties. It demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity. And because of this, it creates an intense feeling of loneliness. Just the same way as online social media.
The side effects of electric media
[…] yesterday’s newspaper, […] nothing could be more drastically out of fashion.
According to McLuhan, TV more than doubled the circulation of Time and Newsweek magazines, with no extra marketing effort. The magazines are mosaic in form – just like TV. They present corporate images of society in action, unlike old pictures magazines, which were not just windows of the world. Interestingly enough, the last paper issue of Newsweek was published the last day of 2012, and now Newsweek exists only online. This could be one weak signal that the mosaic media is reaching the end of the line, and the tribal times are coming back.
Electric media had an impact also on other parts of the culture. Telegraph shortened the sentence, radio shortened the news story and TV introduced the interrogative mood into journalism. In the age of online and mobile media, text message, together with instant message, shortened the word.
The collapse of hierarchy
Each innovation is not only commercially disrupting, but socially and psychologically corroding, as well.
The instant speed of information collapsed the delegated authority and dissolved hierarchical structures of organization charts. Similarly the division of functions and tasks was dissolved by instant and organic interrelations. The highest organizational levels can communicate directly with the lowest organizational levels. Delegated authority cannot withstand the speed of the telephone. Email took this a step further. The biggest boss was able to communicate directly with everybody at the same time. Twitter takes this even further. One president can communicate directly with everybody in the world.
The hierarchy between journalist and reader is collapsing the same way. Readers can publish their messages as easy as professional journalists. The difference is, that the job of citizen journalist is not work – it is participation. It is a membership of a tribe.
 McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Reprint, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.
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 McLuhan 1964, 347.
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 McLuhan 1964, 136-137.
 McLuhan 1964, 138.
 McLuhan 1964, 137.
 McLuhan 1964, 138.
 McLuhan 1964, 138.
 McLuhan 1964, 168.
 McLuhan 1964, 266-267.
 McLuhan 1964, 268.
 McLuhan 1964, 196.
 McLuhan 1964, 204.
 McLuhan 1964, 215.
 McLuhan 1964, 250.
 McLuhan 1964, 247.
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