Reviving McLuhan

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July 11, 2019
How to use the platform to drown the message

The collapse and eventual demise of traditional media channels -- so-called "mass" media, such as the television networks -- are driven by the rise to "social" video alternatives, the likes of YouTube. I know that by this time (mid-2019) the latter assertion rings much like a cliche. Fair enough. Nevertheless, it is a verifiable fact that in terms of sheer viewership, the giant video platform YouTube and its peers have already surpassed their traditional counterparts as the medium of choice for the majority of the world's population. And before you ask: no, it's not just the millennials!

An important and somewhat annoying side-effect of that situation is that it has a tendency to turn the conversation inward, shifting away from its natural subjects and towards the medium itself. Hence an increasing amount of time wasted by major YouTube influencers discussing the subject of ... YouTube, its politics and its policies. The same could be said for Twitter, Facebook, and other online influences and their public discussion platforms.

There's nothing new or particularly enlightening about "the medium [becoming] the message:"* the concept dates back to at least 1964 -- back when television was taking over the airwaves and displacing radio from its golden pedestal in the public eye. It could, of course, be argued that back then, the medium was only mildly interjecting itself in the discourse. By contrast, in the era of social media and the relentless pursuit of every last drop of viewer's attention, the platform is often drowning what should otherwise be the main message. In other words, those who speak on YouTube often speak too much about YouTube, about matters that have little to do with anything but... YouTube.

It doesn't help that the social platforms often have so many rough edges and internal quirks of their own that it is nearly impossible for anyone taking their words to the platform to avoid constantly self-referencing. How many times does a YouTube vlogger have to remind its audience to subscribe and click the bell? Just because everyone else does it doesn't mean you have to do it.   

(*) Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media in 1964 and died in 1980. Those two facts are unrelated.

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