The (Social) Medium Is Not The Message

Last month, I talked about how marketers need to distinguish between interactions and true engagement*. As part of that, I referenced the fact that Facebook and Twitter had been written about in relation to events such as the death of Amy Winehouse, the massacre in Norway and the Egyptian revolution. But since writing that, social media has again been rolled out as a whipping boy, this time being blamed by some for the riots that broke out in London.

This led to politicians, including the British Prime Minister, and some of his most loyal followers, suggesting that at times such as these social networks should be censored or even closed down.

Leaving aside the fact that this would mean that Mr. Cameron had a similar view on this topic to the likes of the Arab dictators he’s so keen to see toppled, what it shows is a massive misunderstanding about what social networks, and indeed what the social Web in general, actually is.

In 1964, philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the, now infamous, phrase:

The medium is the message

According to wikipedia, McLuhan had a broad definition of media, including light bulbs:

A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.

Or, in the case of a news story:

Likewise, the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less about the individual news story itself — the content — and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crimes are in effect being brought into the home to watch over dinner

It strikes me that more and more, many people are mixing-up social media for the messages which they convey, and that whilst these media do play some part in shaping the messages they carry, as they become commonplace, this should cease to be of interest.

So, rioters used Twitter to organise riots (even though it would appear that they didn’t), means we should ban Twitter.

It’s lucky that these politicians weren’t around in the 19th Century, when riots abounded, or they might have tried to ban the nascent postal service. And of course if the politicians had got their way (they didn’t), it would have meant that the bottom-up, crowd-sourced community clean-ups, wouldn’t have been possible.

To avoid the danger of this becoming a rant about the risk of politicians who don’t understand technology seeking to legislate against it, let’s look at what can we take from this as marketers.

Firstly, it shows that, as an industry, we need to move away from the idea that social media is inherently new and exciting. With user data showing that, in many markets, Facebook is now the single biggest media platform (versus major newspapers, TV shows, etc…), and is, therefore, essentially the mainstream.

The fact that a news story breaks on a social network, or that people are using these platforms to communicate, is the 21st Century equivalent of dog bites man. If marketers, and anyone else, wishes to be taken seriously, they need to accept this and move on.

They also need to ensure that social is an integrated part of any communications plan, and isn’t siloed: activity on Facebook, Twitter etc., should be thought through and planned in conjunction with TV, press, even search. What this means for ‘social media agencies’, is a topic for a later date.

Secondly, building on this this, we need to start separating the ends from the means.

A perfect example of this is the hype that we’ve seen over the last year or so around location based services (LBS), such as Foursquare, compared to the recent news that Facebook is, to all intents and purposes, dropping ‘check-ins’. Because what Facebook have realised (I assume) is that check-ins, as a social object in and of themselves, have very little value.

Yes, if you’re out and about and want to know if any of your friends are nearby, the basic location data that Places brought was kind of useful. But for most people, it didn’t really add anything. Ditto for other marketing buzz-phrases such as QR codes.

Because we still sometimes confuse the medium with the message, and think that the (imagined) newness of social, mobile, and the like, will make our activities on these platforms exciting, we end up asking consumers to do something just for the sake of doing it.

What people really want is added-value. This can be provided by adding context (in the case of location, through services such as Songkick, now partnering with Foursquare), or utility (in the case of QR codes, by making it a way of taking the pain out of shopping, as in the video below).

YouTube Preview Image

So next time someone tells you that ‘this happened on Twitter’, or ‘Facebook caused that’, step back and think about what these platforms can really add, in terms of context or utility. Otherwise it’s not news, just tomorrow’s chip wrapper**.

*I’m very glad that the 9/11 app I mentioned in last month’s post has now hit its funding target.

**An old British phrase based on the fact that fish & chips used to be wrapped in newspapers: today’s news, tomorrow’s (fish &) chip wrapper.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search & Social


About The Author: is the Head of Digital for Mindshare Ireland, as well as holding a global role for the media agency as Director, Emerging Media. At Mindshare he works with both local & multinational clients, helping them to integrate on & offline, and to utilise search, social, mobile & video in their broader marketing mix.

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  • Mark A. Cianfrani

    The English major in me shrieks at ‘according to wikipedia.’ But great article. The thing that everyone ought to be a little more conscious of is that the names Facebook and Twitter are going to keep coming and going. Despite the brand name, the majority of value that comes from social media services is the specific niche medium they use (microblogging vs blogging vs geolocation vs etc). Shifting all your attention on the brand will leave you deserted if these services ever close up shop (ahem, Myspace. . . .)

  • Ashley

    You make many good points. Calls for banning/censoring social media are simply results of frustrated individuals that have clearly not fully thought about what they are proposing. It is easy to target Facebook, Twitter, etc. because they are still considered by many to be the buzz words of the moment (though you say we should not look at social media as such). What’s next – the computers, cell phones, and portable devices that host the applications? Doubtful.

    A side note: it seems that Facebook is not fully dropping the Places feature, but merely changing it ( Looks like we still have time to harvest the added value out of this feature.


  • Ciarán Norris

    @Mark – sorry about using Wikipedia as a reference, but it’s hard to link to the Encyclopaedia Britannica! On the other point – you’re right; obsessing over the name of something misses the point.

    @Ashley – glad you enjoyed it. I probably didn#t make myself clear – I realised Facebook wasn’t dropping Places as such, but my understanding is that they are making it less of a feature in and of itself. That is, checking-in to a venue, isn’t really that interesting – it doesn’t add much to your wall, or social graph. Building location into actions (what you’re doing there), does.


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