The Medium is the Message (or Why You Shouldn't Use Social Media)

by Frank on March 4, 2010

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote “Understanding Media,” in which he made his famous statement that “the medium is the message.”  Being the sharp guy (or gal) you are, you probably see that I ripped him off to name my blog.  I ripped him off because he was right.  McLuhan was considered a crank then, sort of like Bruce Willis in “12 Monkeys,” because he pointed out that the medium used communicated far more than the content itself, and often with negative consequences.  He warned that all that plugged in did not glitter, so to speak.

In McLuhan’s day (as in ours) people thought the technology was neutral – the message it contained was all that mattered.  When I was in college, there was some debate over whether the presence of porn on the internet made the internet inherently dangerous and therefore bad.  The answer was that the internet was just a tool – a tool that could be used for good or evil, but the tool itself was as neutral as a hammer.  And that’s a good argument… except that it’s not.  A hammer is not neutral.

Let me explain.  Yes, just like the internet, a hammer is not morally good or bad.  But the fact that you used a hammer instead of, say, a rock is significant, and communicates a lot about you.  And yes, it communicates more than just that you forgot to bring a hammer on your camp-out.

McLuhan cites the example of Australian Aboriginals who were given steel axes to replace the stone ones the men had used for maybe thousands of years.  This free technological advance had a profoundly negative effect on the native community structure.  Stone axes took a lot of work to make, and the men prized them.  Boys didn’t have stone axes.  Women didn’t have stone axes.  Owning one said you were a man in the traditional sense: self-sufficient, a provider, able to take care of your family.  Steel axes were manufactured somewhere else and handed out to any man, woman or child who could swing it, and in that context, communicated mostly that you’d had a run-in with a well-meaning white guy.  Notice all the messages that the medium itself communicates.

Why This Matters for Marketers

There’s a whole discussion to be had about how the use of a particular medium changes us, but I’m trying to dodge that question for now, so I can finally get to why it matters for marketers.  If the medium itself communicates something, then your conversion rate depends to some not-insignificant degree on the medium you use.  If you want to convince your 80-year-old grandmother to buy your point of view, which would be more effective: to email her a link to a YouTube video – or send her a book?  Would the answer be the same if you were trying to convince a recent college graduate?  What about a high-schooler?  The medium matters, doesn’t it?  And besides framing your argument in terms familiar to her, you’re also saying something about yourself.  If she views book readers as smart and TV-watchers as fat, lazy slobs and you send her a YouTube video, you’ve communicated something, haven’t you?

So before you go off telling all your clients or your boss that they need a Twitter account yesterday, if they want to succeed, you might first ask what the use of that particular medium itself will communicate about you.  Social media can be a great thing.  But using it says something about you to your customers, clients, patients, donors, or whoever you’re marketing to.

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