The medium is the message - or it is the other way around?

Marshall McLuhan introduced his famous phrase to the world in 1964: “the medium is the message.” The quote means that the medium itself has more impact than the content it carries. Fifty-one years later, the phrase remains widely used, even though the most popular forms of media today did not even exist when those words were first conceived in McLuhan’s mind.

As a student in the User Experience course taught at UW’s Stratford campus, I was introduced to a new perspective on the content-medium relationship. The prof said, “the content shapes the website or app.” In other words, the message is the medium. The design of a website is changed by the manner in which is it used. Developers do research into how people are using their websites, and update their product to improve the user’s experience. For example, many Twitter users began quoting other users’ tweets and adding their own comments to it in a new tweet. The developers noticed this, and recently added a new “quote tweet” feature that facilitates the process. In this sense, the medium was altered by the content on it.

A website or app often shifts away from its intended purpose when people begin using it as a personal outlet. The Yik Yak app was created to act like a virtual, local bulletin board. Users make anonymous posts that can be read by anyone within a 1.5 mile radius. Other users vote a post either up or down, and the most popular posts appear at the top of the page. Yik Yak exploded in high schools and colleges across the US, but the app soon became a way to bully peers anonymously. Some high schools banned the app in an effort to protect their students. Alyson Shontell, a writer for Business Insider, writes that “the same features that make Yik Yak popular, anonymity and hyper-local context, could ruin the startup if it can’t learn how to curb its users.” (Shontell, 2015) With too few controls placed on the content of the posts, the developers allow Yik Yak’s users to soil the reputation of the app, and it could ultimately fail. Yik Yak is a powerful example of how the content can take over the medium.

I am not saying that McLuhan is totally wrong. The medium and the message shape each other, as they co-evolve into the age of new media.

Works Cited
Shontell, Alyson. “How 2 Georgia fraternity brothers created Yik Yak, a controversial app that became a ~$400 million business in 365 days.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 12 Mar 2015. Web. 25 Sept 2015.

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