“The medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan (1964) contended in his masterpiece “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. This quote has then served as an important perspective as people intend to deepen their insight into the interaction between media, society and culture, or more specifically, how society, culture and civilization are molded through the lens of media consumption and production. Going off from that, however, the reciprocal interaction between media and culture shouldn’t be overlooked as the other side of the coin, as to what extent media presentation itself has reflected the features of unique culture or civilization.
Medium, by nature is often defined as the vehicle for delivery of message, while message is the information that is proposed to be entering the audience’s mind and which should exert cognitive influences on people. That McLuhan equalized these two seemingly distinctive terms, however, indicates his argument that in a broad sense, what unobtrusively affects people’s view of the world might not be the “message” per se, what matters indeed is the “channel” through which the “message” is formed and thus disseminated. Taking movie as an example, McLuhan argued that the distorted conception of time and speed rooted in movie as an information delivery channel had indeed transformed the world from one of “sequence and connections” into one of “creative configuration and structure”. Extending McLuhan’s contention, Postman (1985) put forward the concept that “media is the metaphor” in his thought-provoking work “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. Metaphor referring to the way of interpreting the world, Postman’s main argument is that the pervasive entertainment encouraged by the form of television as a medium has rendered almost everything including those otherwise serious issues entertaining, impairing people’s ability of deep contemplation. Put another way, television has framed its content with an intention to entertain audience, and this feature of the channel, magnified by the popularity of television, has fundamentally directed people’s way of thinking to be closely intertwined with entertainment.
In the context of present day’s media environment, novel media forms to accommodate content are emerging prosperously, such as wearable communication devices, VR headset, social networking sites, all providing similar content compared to their counterparts in the previous era, but with extremely different technological features or forms. For instance, unlike face-to-face interaction, communication on Facebook is deprived of most social cues and possible embarrassment. Therefore, it provides an opportunity for more self-disclosure which may lead to higher level of interpersonal intimacy (Forest & Wood, 2012). In addition, considering Facebook’s popularity with its application on mobile phones, people are increasingly able to initiate an online conversation with friends on their mobile screens regardless of temporal or spatial limitations. Turkle (2011), noticing the mobility and convenience of contact granted by the affordances of mobile phones and Internet, advanced her observation that people are stuck in a phenomenon of perpetual contact brought about by mobile technology where people are always contacting friends miles away but ignoring what is happening just around. This is actually redefining interpersonal relationship, and is constantly cutting off people’s attention by distraction from social media messages. As is confirmed by a research conducted by Yeykelis et al (2014), the presentation of overloaded fragmented information online has substantially shortened people’s span of attention, reflected by their continuously switching from one platform to another within merely 19 seconds. The thing is, aligned with McLuhan and Postman’s argument, the content across different platforms does not change fundamentally. What is undergoing changes, however, is the medium itself, and it is the medium framework itself that changes the way people behave and think.
To add further support to this, Gentzkow (2006) carried out a research which explored the interaction between television viewing and turnout for presidential election in the United States. The finding is, despite the mounting prevalence of televisions in 1950s, people’s turnout for election declined nonetheless. Since television’s substitution away of newspaper and broadcast was validated, the explanation was that people were watching televisions more for entertainment, rather than for politics. This is indeed a compelling support to the afore-discussed outweighing importance of technology over content. Before the introduction of television, people were somewhat passively receiving information from newspaper and broadcast which were comparatively rich with political news. But as television brought far more affordances of media, especially the combination of visual and auditory entertainment, people were intuitively attracted to them. Although the content of political news was not changing too much across television and newspapers, people simply stopped attending to this topic but turned to other TV programs given television’s various modalities of information frames. This presumably “bad” influence of television on politics, however, should be applicable to many other forms of media in that these new modalities of information are always likely to drive other gratifications. In the example of social network apps in mobile phones, they are not solely consolidating relationships; the fragmented instant information on them, however, is distracting people fundamentally.
All those being said, however, what is argued is only one side of the coin. To address the other side as to how media is reflecting the actual culture of a society, the variable of culture should be taken into consideration. Groshek et al.’s (2012) research on comparison between “attack” political advertisements in France and US election campaigns found that overall America showed more negativity than France. This finding supported the hypothesis that since America takes on a “Liberal” model favored by commercial media and France “Polarized Pluralist”, there would be more negative campaign advertisements in the U.S. than in France. What’s more, given that America is a low-context country while France high, hypotheses were made that the U.S. would feature more personal characteristic attacking ads and France more issue attacking. Although these were not fully supported, more nuanced differentiations were expected to explain. In general, the difference in culture has been demonstrated by research to be assertive in media platforms. As media reflects the world that is largely shaped by media, the interaction between them is always an ongoing process.
Then, culture is what frames the message, and medium is the message.
By Muyang Zhou, BU Emerging Media Studies Master’s Student
De Boer, N., Sütfeld, H., & Groshek, J. (2012).Social media and personal attacks: A comparative perspective on co–creation and political advertising in presidential campaigns on YouTube. First Monday, Volume 17, Number 12 – 3, December 2012.
Forest, A.L., & Wood, J.V. (2012). When Social Networking is Not Working: Individuals with Low Self-Esteem Recognize but Do Not Reap the Benefits of Self-Disclosure on Facebook. In Psychological Science. Volume: 23 issue: 3, page(s): 295-302.
Gentzkow, M. (2006). Television and Voter Turnout. In The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2006.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York : McGraw-Hill.
Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. U.S.A. : Penguin Books.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together : Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York : Basic Books.