Which is the medium and which is the message?
November 21, 2010 5:53 PM   Subscribe

When Marshall McLuhan said "the medium is the message," what exactly did he mean?

People quote that all the time, and I sort of know what they mean, in a broad strokes sort of way, but I wouldn't be able to confidently explain it to anyone else. Please explain it to me, applying concrete examples for "medium" and "message." Thanks.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
This essay says it much better than I could.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:55 PM on November 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

This might also be helpful.
posted by jessamyn at 5:59 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

The short story (and there's much, much more to McLuhan than this) is that the technology by which a piece of information is transmitted determines absolutely the content and the style of that information, and the public and private economy of how that message is produced, received, and consumed. He was one of the first popular media determinists.

This bio page gives a good rundown of his basic ideas, with examples.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:02 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sidhedevil beat me to it.

As Neil Postman paraphrased in Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the meanings of the the phrase is that the best way to understand a culture is to understand its means of conversation. McLuhan postulated that the cultural changes wrought by television were independent of its content - i.e., it didn't even matter what was on. A controversial view, but one that goes a long way to elucidate what he really meant by saying "the medium is the message".

(Consider also the implicit meanings in the title of a later work, The Medium is the Massage)
posted by Roach at 6:05 PM on November 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

applying concrete examples
One great metafilter-related example I recall, that really illustrates the way communicative technologies determine the way people behave, and the way a culture thinks about communication itself, was this post on whether Facebook was Chametz for the purposes of a Hassidic Passover. Rabbi Feinstein-Feit in the linked interview argued that facebook despite being a social technology has some fundamentally anti-social effects:
I'm a fan of Facebook in general, but have noticed that using the network not only can distract me from other more introspective or meditative pursuits, but it can also induce comparing mind — "so-and-so's life is more interesting, meaningful, fun, etc." I wanted to create awareness around how Facebook can actually serve to alienate us, and to find support in abstaining from something that is so common-place...
That sense of a medium being at its very centre, an effect on identity and people's mentalities, is one of McLuhan's core ideas.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:14 PM on November 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's a para from my 'intro to Comm' textbook:
McLuhan was convinced that the way we live is largely a function of the way we process information. The phonetic alphabet, the printing press, and the telegraph were turning points in human history because they changed the way people thought about themselves and their world. Tom Wolfe, an analyst of popular culture, summarizes McLuhan's thesis:
The new technologies ... radically alter the entire way people use their five senses, the way they react to things, and therefore, their entire lives and the entire society. It doesn't matter what the content of a medium like TV is ... twenty hours a day of sadistic cowboys caving in people's teeth or ... Pablo Casals droning away on his cello.
McLuhan said it more succintly: "The medium is the message."
TV was another of those turning points, sort of like the one where a winding river turns into a waterfall.
posted by carsonb at 6:17 PM on November 21, 2010

Obligatory. Best part starts at about 2:00
posted by Ironmouth at 6:21 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lots of good stuff here so far but the explanation that worked best for me way back when went something like this:

It's more relevant to study the television medium itself (the specifics of the technology and how humans relate to it) than the shows that are being broadcast.

Of course, that's just television. The same holds true for all media (from the light bulb to the internet).

WORD OF WARNING ON McLUHAN. He was a self-described "apocalyptic", convinced that the upheavals in the post World War Two 20th Century were happening so fast and were of so much import that he tended to not wait until had a concept fully formulated before sharing it, broadcasting, publishing it. He did a lot of "thinking out loud", so in retrospect, not everything he put his name to adds up. He would have fit right in here at MetaFilter.
posted by philip-random at 7:20 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

... or as Brian Oblivion (aka McLuhan) put it in David Cronenburg's Videodrome ...
posted by philip-random at 7:26 PM on November 21, 2010

Canadian commercials taught me all about McLuhan: here.
posted by pised at 7:54 PM on November 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

McLuhan's Wake
posted by hortense at 8:35 PM on November 21, 2010

I learned about McLuhan in MIT's Intro To Media Studies, available through OpenCourseWare. I had a different professor than the OCW version of the class linked above, but I thought it covered very interesting material.
posted by maryr at 9:34 PM on November 21, 2010

One of the details that often gets overlooked in relation to McLuhan's famous adage is its second half: "the user is the content"

I agree with the others above that the first half of the adage emphasizes the way that media restructure human perception. The second half seems to anticipate reader-response criticism. The meaning of a given broadcast depends on the context in which the user experiences it (including the context of that reader's own interpretive community, biases, etc.)
posted by ndicecco at 11:25 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

To further expand on the points that other people are making, compare the expectations of different mediums.

For example if you're interested in cooking you could read a book about it, watch a television program or read a cooking magazine. The content you're looking for might be the same but the medium creates a framework to carry additional norms.

for example a cookbook is unlikely to have advertisements, while a magazine or a cooking show will be loaded with careful product placement and ads. A book might promote certain norms, such as the ownership of certain kitchen appliances, but the magazine and the television program will aim specific products at you as the price of enjoying content.

So your cookbook will say "Mix on high for three minutes" while the cooking show will lovingly focus on the label on the host's stand mixer and pack the commercials with things you might (and should, according to the advertisers) want. The magazine will push the norm of paid editorials while the publishing cycle of cookbooks means you're less likely to encounter a digression into the specific top ten kitchen appliances of the 2010 holiday season.

Basically the audience conforms to the norms around the medium as well as simply learning how to make Yorkshire Pudding.
posted by Phalene at 7:35 AM on November 22, 2010

This is amazing guys, thanks. I was never sure if people using the quotation were expanding on McLuhan's meaning themselves, or if he actually intended his meaning to be that broad. Lots of great reading for me to do here. I appreciate your input.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:08 AM on November 22, 2010

A jumbotron (c) in a stadium is a pretty good example of this. It exists solely for the purpose of advertising, but it takes on roles that disguise that fact...like the smooch-cam, or showing the crazy shirtless man dancing in the aisles. You'll notice that being a "crazier fan" at the event will get you on the big-screen usually: you're swagged up with logos and crests; you're delirious and insane; you're extremely good looking.

These core values of modern "entertainment" (antics, good looks, consumerism) can all be summed up by the jumbotron itself...not just by the commercials that play at halftime, but along with those commercials you can glean some information about the society and its expectations at the event.
posted by Khazk at 2:18 PM on November 22, 2010

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