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The message is the massage

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1st December 2017

In an article for Mediatel, a company which sits at the centre of the media industry, connecting buyers and sellers, Rosie Cross, Barclays’ brand and advertising campaign manager, returns to Marshall McLuhan’s theory that a medium impacts the message it carries and discusses how this relationship has been altered by the growth of digital media. She writes: “In democratising the power to broadcast, the founding principles of social media are now being exploited and compromised. Platforms that were founded as ways to connect and share have been ‘massaged’ into tools for separation, antagonisation and mass manipulation. Today, the message is the massage.”

Here is her article in full…

Platforms that were founded as ways to connect and share have been ‘massaged’ into tools for separation and mass manipulation.

Half of me is writing this article. The other half battles for my brain’s attention, firing emojis to Whatsapp groups, stalking old acquaintances’ Facebook posts, skim-reading articles online that ephemerally take my fancy, and generally gorging on the internet through countless other time-sapping pastimes. It’s a clear case of Antoine Geiger-esque slavery to my smartphone, and if I could concentrate my attention on a single medium for long enough I might admit: I’m a slave to modern media.

Despite writing in the 60s, before any of this existed, Marshall McLuhan remains the biggest name in media theory. He’s best known for his controversial opinion that the existence of each medium impacts humans’ lives far more than any of the messages it carries: media totally crafts society.

The invention of the alphabet, for example, transformed people’s experience of the world. In the oral culture preceding it, individuals had to learn about the world through the visceral experience of hearing stories told in the present moment. When this information was written down, however, accounts could be passed over time and long distances. And the linearity required by the written narrative, McLuhan argued, even impacted how people internalised their own experiences.

Similarly, the invention of the printing press in the 15th century caused the rise of modern nationalism by enabling large numbers of people to read exactly the same ideas – something that was previously impossible with the small-scale distribution of handwritten manuscripts.

Today, the internet has transformed society by providing access to a limitless mass of information. Previously, you’d rely on the radio reporter, newspaper journalist or TV programme’s narrative to impart information to you, but now you can actively browse any number of information sources through a quick internet search.

McLuhan foresaw this “shift from instruction to discovery”; when the environment is made of information, learning can be entirely self-directed. He suggested this was a great opportunity, as the diversity of information people could consume would open their minds and broaden their views.

In practice, this logic hasn’t rung true. The more information we have at our fingertips, the more it can feel like an overwhelming, endless swarm. Research conducted by Newsworks with Flamingo and Tapestry – Is the medium still the massage? which assesses the relevance of one of McLuhan’s most famous texts to today’s media landscape – found that the more people feel like this, the more they choose sources of information that align with their existing worldview and reinforce existing beliefs, rather than challenging or broadening their horizons.

In a media landscape of ‘discovery’, you direct your own route through information where previously editors and broadcasters navigated your way. You can simply cut whatever’s not to your taste.

The fact that algorithms are programmed to serve users content similar to that they’ve already read, to ensure repeat engagements, exacerbates this cycle. Online sources have hereby learnt to deprioritise accuracy and reliability in favour of ‘clickability’ and in the case of social media, ‘shareability’ – far more profitable measures.

This is reminiscent of McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, where he proposes that each medium crafts (or ‘massages’) the information it delivers. Rather than delivering a message objectively, the medium impacts the information it carries. Today’s digital media ‘massages’ news online into a different form.

While this has the benefit of allowing us to consume news instantaneously, when and how we want it, there are also drawbacks. For instance, not getting the sense of a full or rounded breadth of stories – as one of the respondents Flamingo and Tapestry spoke to said: “You can’t read the internet cover to cover”.

In this context, Newsworks’ research found that the importance of brand is dominant in the digital landscape. The source of news takes on a new resonance when anything is accessible. There has also been a shift in how we experience stories. While McLuhan categorised newspapers as a ‘cold media’ in the 1960s – meaning that they were largely a thinking medium – the rise of online video and other forms of storytelling mean that there has been a shift to ‘feeling’ a story and being shown a narrative, rather than told.

This development of new story-telling techniques enabled by the internet is undoubtedly a good thing, allowing publishers big and small to experiment and innovate. Where issues arise online is when stories are ferociously refined for the digital environment – eroding the information’s integrity in order to distil down into an attractive thumbnail and click-bait worthy headline.

Think of Dove’s disastrous ad campaign: the hyperlinked-and-thumbnailed articles showed an ad which depicted a black woman removing her t-shirt to become white. Copious criticisms of racial insensitivity and ‘whitewashing’ were raised, yet Lola Ogunyemi, the face of the campaign, stood by the ad. What Ogunyemi criticised was not the ad’s concept, but its misrepresentation in the online narrative. She states, “the full TV edit does a much better job of making the campaign’s message loud and clear…The [media’s] narrative has been written without giving consumers context on which to base an informed opinion”.

In extreme cases, shareability overthrows reliability: Fake News. ‘Post-truth’ – crowned 2016’s word of the year – exemplifies this reshaping of news as we once knew it. Exactly aligned with McLuhan’s views, we see that social media isn’t just a mode of disseminating information, but actually reconfigures the information that it disseminates. The medium has massaged the message in drastic ways; fake news is even considered by some to have influenced the election of Trump.

“In the old days, you could fire or pull a trigger on a revolver and hurt people, but today, when you trigger this vast media that we use, you are manipulating entire populations,” McLuhan writes.

As McLuhan contests, the media landscape has widespread and permeating impact on our society. But whereas The Medium Is the Massage asserts the absolute power of media over the messages they carry, today the relationship between these two elements has been complicated.

While digital’s possibilities has many benefits – bringing publishers massive reach and allowing for creative experimentation – it is a double edged sword. In democratising the power to broadcast, the founding principles of social media are now being exploited and compromised. Platforms that were founded as ways to connect and share have been ‘massaged’ into tools for separation, antagonisation and mass manipulation. Today, the message is the massage.

Rosie Cross is brand and advertising campaign manager, Barclays