How the medium shapes us

Thanks to a recommendation from Shirley, I recently came across Ezra Klein’s “I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message.”

This article had me reflecting a lot on how and why I consume content.

Klein starts by quoting Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher responsible for the phrase “the medium is the message”:

It’s another [Marshall McLuhan] quote, from early in his 1964 classic, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” that lodged in my mind: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

The first thing that jumped to mind for me was fact-checking on social media.

Meta’s fact-checking and Twitter’s Birdwatch are both attempts to allow users to feel more comfortable with the information being shared on their platforms.

That being said, both of these approaches only look at the medium’s content.

The medium itself, the social media platform, can conveniently drop off the radar.

While it is helpful to fact-check the content of the medium, other valuable considerations are easily overlooked:

  • Who determines what gets shared?
  • What are the incentives to share or not share something?
  • What gets shown to people, in what order, and with what frequency, and how does that get determined?
  • What about things that can’t be fact-checked, like opinions? And how are those distinguished for fact-checkers and readers?
  • Who is doing the fact-checking? What makes them qualified? How do they protect against their own biases and beliefs?
  • Related to some of the above, I also thought it would be helpful to explicitly ask: what does this say about the social media highlight reel?

In his article, Klein continues:

[Marshall McLuhan]’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment and social media taught us to think with the crowd.

It’s not just that television presents us with moving pictures and sound.

Television also gives us multiple channels to choose from.

I think this is important because it helps train us for immediate gratification.

Why stick with a TV show to see if it will get better? All you have to do is change the channel to find something more immediately entertaining.

If only one channel existed, we might be better trained for delayed gratification.

I don’t think we’d be so quick to turn the TV off if the show wasn’t entertaining.

We turn to the TV in the first place because we prefer it over living our own real lives.

Have you ever sat through a meh TV show to avoid something like chores or simply sitting with yourself and the discomfort in your body?

And it’s not just that social media connected us with friends, acquaintances, and idols, near and far.

Social media follows most of us around our entire waking lives.

And those social media notifications are a Pavlovian bell.

Every notification provides us with a dopamine hit that fuels our addiction.

It not only drives us to check our social media but also to think about our social media.

And it changes our behaviour to cater to our social media.

We buy supplements and hire personal trainers because we think 6-pack abs will get us more likes.

We change how we speak and write because we think it will increase our engagement.

We stop ourselves from sharing things that we fear may cost us followers.

One last thought from Klein’s article I wanted to touch on:

As Sean Illing, a co-author of “The Paradox of Democracy,” told me, “McLuhan says: Don’t just look at what’s being expressed. Look at the ways it’s being expressed. And then Postman says: Don’t just look at the way things are being expressed, look at how the way things are expressed determines what’s actually expressible.” In other words: The medium blocks certain messages.

I’ve already talked about how the medium blocks particular messages above.

And sometimes, people prefer it when the medium blocks certain messages, especially regarding political issues.

But still, there are important things to consider here as well. For simplicity, I’m going to focus on social media.

One example of this is experts.

Simply being an expert isn’t enough.

Platforms like Twitter reward people who ensure that each sentence is at least as entertaining as the previous one.

Platforms like YouTube reward attractive people with clear voices and charisma.

Another example of this is newcomers.

Social media rewards audience size.

Something tweeted by someone with 100,000 followers will be seen by more people than if someone with 100 followers tweeted it.

And this effect tends to grow over time since it’s easier to find more followers when your tweets get more views.

Here are some questions I wanted to leave you with. I’ve been thinking about them since I read this article:

  • What are you hoping to achieve by consuming X? (e.g. knowledge, entertainment, skill acquisition)? Are you reading according to that goal or another one?
  • How often are you bringing into your awareness how the medium is shaping the top of your consumption funnel? …how the medium is shaping your beliefs, feelings, and behaviours?

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