©istockphoto / Gary Cookson

©istockphoto.com/Gary Cookson

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man hypothesizes that any specific medium — a book or a film, for example — conveys information in very different ways than any other medium, and that the choice of medium for specific content is just as important as the content itself.

McLuhan’s original concept essentially covered every technology, from light bulbs to the spoken word and even to roads and airplanes.

Redefining Media

I know what you’re thinking — “The light bulb is a medium?” Yes. In fact, anything with a social effect can be considered a medium. The light bulb allowed people to engage with content in the dark of the night. It had profound social effects.

Social media fit right into this picture. Brian Solis constantly revises his “Conversation Prism” graphic to reflect the ever-evolving Internet landscape of digital content creation and distribution platforms.

Conversion Prism

New channels (media) are created, launched, and tested every day. There are platforms to share video, deliver e-documents, share slide presentations, and distribute just about anything else.

There are live video platforms, audio platforms, and a wide variety of chat tools. Websites create social networks, groups within groups, and networks of groups within networks. It’s dizzying.

Now digital media can be dissected infinitely. For example, there’s blogging, then live blogging, then life streams, video blogging, status updates, micro-blogging, and on and on.

Understanding Any Social Medium – McLuhan’s Way

McLuhan was ahead of his time when he redefined media. In our social media age, we must pay just as much attention, if not more, to the medium as to the content.

And each medium is different to different people.To a 55-year-old CEO, Facebook is where his daughter chats with friends. To a 25-year-old marketing associate, it’s five thousand brand advocates. That’s proof of McLuhan’s theory that different societies – even different age groups – are affected in different ways by the same medium. That’s true of any new medium, regardless of content.

Shoes and Politics: Two Quick Examples

The folks at Zappos pride themselves on customer service, and their adoption of GetSatisfaction.com is another example of the medium as the message: We care about your customer experience so much that we’ll interact with you where you interact already.

But the medium itself has run into problems as more and more people participate on Get Satisfaction and interact with Zappos. It’s hard to find a specific issue and difficult to thread similar issues. And it’s impossible to navigate all the issues. The medium itself is now creating customer experience concerns for Zappos and is reflecting badly on the Zappos brand.

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s use of media like Twitter, YouTube and Flickr underscores their desire to be perceived as more open and transparent than previous administrations.

McLuhan’s Advice

In the context of today’s online experience, McLuhan would advise you to understand what development stage any new medium has reached in its social and cultural evolution. He’d want you to study the medium and its social effects even before you consider content.

As McLuhan argued, technologies are to the surrounding culture as words are to a poem: the former derive their meaning from the context formed by the latter.