Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
Unlike the pompous blowhard in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, I will not attempt to mansplain McLuhan. (But if you’ve never seen McLuhan’s cameo in the movie — it’s classic.) I’ll just share my interpretation and tell you why I think his most famous idea is relevant today.
McLuhan writes that the content of a medium often blinds us to its character. And character is where the real power lies. The power to change society, harm it, even destroy it.
I’ve been thinking about McLuhan a lot these days, most recently on Friday when Twitter suspended President Trump’s account, much like a parent would take away a toddler’s plastic baseball bat after she brained her brother with it one too many times. (I still don’t get why it’s a “permanent suspension” and not a “lifetime ban,” but okay.)
The tweeting Trump has done over the past four years, and especially in the past week, is reprehensible. But McLuhan would argue that the content (his tweets) blinds us to the far greater damage that the character of the medium (Twitter itself) has done and continues to do.
Every time I hear a reporter say, “The President tweeted…”, I think to myself how undignified. How embarrassing and shameful that the leader of the world’s most powerful nation would make this his primary method of communication. How frightening that we’ve allowed it.
How has a platform that has so clearly eroded and corroded our society and culture come to occupy such a central position in our democracy? How has this virtual wasteland become a go-to place for vital information?
I’ve heard people — smart people — say they use Twitter (and, God forbid, Facebook) as their primary source of news. I mean, I get it. Reading The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal takes time. And who has that? Why spend an hour reading an in-depth, superbly reported piece when you can scroll through 20 headlines in a minute and see a new Tiger King meme?
By and large, Twitter is just a giant time suck, a low-rent forum that makes it easy for any coward or nutcase to, as a loved one once eloquently put it, “grow a pair of balls behind a keyboard.”
Twitter is dumb and dangerous and consequently, it makes us dumb and dangerous. “I’m not dangerous,” you say. Yeah, you are. Because whether you recognize it or not, Twitter has lowered your expectations.
The fact that we, as a nation, have decided that tweeting is an acceptable way for the President to do business proves it. We no longer expect, desire, and perhaps can’t even handle, lengthy, thoughtful, reasoned dispatches. We want “covfefe” and “FAKE NEWS!”
Now before you call me a crank who probably wishes television had never been invented and we were all still reading papyrus by torchlight — not at all. I love television. And for the purposes of this discussion, I’d like to draw a distinction: television, unlike the Internet, is a passive medium.
Now, there is no doubt that television has changed and shaped society in ways both good and very, very bad. I grew up as part of the MTV Generation and everyone said those three-minute videos with their lightning-fast cuts would melt our minds.
Maybe our attention spans did suffer a bit, but I’ll argue until the end of time that the Internet, particularly social media, is a far more destructive beast because it encourages, if not requires, us to actively engage. You can yell at your TV, but it won’t yell back.
If you saw the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (here’s the trailer), you might disagree about television’s benign nature. You may still be convinced that scores of citizens watching network news every night is the true threat to democracy.
But I don’t think even Chomsky could’ve imagined the horrors we witnessed last week. A President, who built his following 280 characters at a time, issuing tweets that, in combination with his vile, hateful, inflammatory speech, lead to the death of six fellow Americans, including a Capitol police officer who committed suicide days after responding to the raid.
I do recognize that Twitter has some usefulness, particularly in countries that don’t have a free press. But I’m talking about its value here in the good old U.S. of A.
Please don’t tell me that Twitter is necessary for life. I don’t care how easy it makes it for you to reach your followers. See the bigger picture. Look beyond yourself. Recognize how your choices, your actions are part of a larger whole.
If you’re using one hand to point fingers at the craven Republican senators who back Trump and his heinous lies while using the other to tweet all day, it is, in the long run, a wash — at least as far as our democracy is concerned. One step forward by being strong enough to get the tawny beast out of office, two steps back by being too weak to get off social media.
McLuhan would ask that we wake up, look up, and see that problem isn’t just “out there.” It’s also in that rectangle in the palm of your hand. You know, the one you can’t put down. The one that is, as the subtitle of his seminal book says, a literal and figurative extension of you.
The one that makes you hop-to every time it dings. The one that makes you tell your kid “one sec” 10 times a day. The one your face is probably stuck in right now. Ask yourself: Who really has the power in that relationship?
There is no question that in the broader scheme of things the overwhelming majority of Twitter’s 145 million daily active users would be better off without it. And remember, Twitter’s only been around for 15 years. We were all fine before it came along and we —including the 88 million people who followed Trump — would be fine if it went away tomorrow.
I created a Twitter account in 2014 when I working on a piece for The New York Times and needed to verify some statistics fast. I couldn’t find a phone number or email address for the person who could help me, so I reached out on Twitter and within a matter of minutes had what I needed. I haven’t used it for work since. I’ve tweeted a total of 59 times in seven years, have 10 followers, and don’t know who some of them are. Alan cashdollar? No clue.
I have no use for my Twitter account and will delete it tomorrow if you’ll delete yours. I’ve never been on Facebook, but if you are — time to get rid of that, too. Come on, you know Mark Zuckerberg is evil incarnate. More importantly, the more you use social media, the shittier you feel about yourself. And why would you want to feel shitty?
If you’re not quite ready to go cold turkey, I have two suggestions:
- Mindful Browsing. If there’s a website you want to eliminate from your life but can’t summon the will, this is the tool for you. Essentially, you tell it the URLs you’re trying to avoid and each time you attempt to log onto to one of them, Mindful Browsing will “beautifully interrupt,” asking, “Are you sure you want to spend time there?” It will then give you the opportunity to redirect to a more positive place and, eventually, you’ll wean yourself off entirely. Trust me, it works.
- Keep a Log: On Monday morning, start a daily log of how much time you spend on each of your social media accounts. See what the tally is on Sunday night. If it’s more than one hour total — GET OFF. And stay off for three days. (They say it takes three days to break a habit.) Then see how you feel. I’ll bet you’ll feel better, lighter, freer, more present, less distracted. I think you’ll discover you don’t need ‘em and never really did.
But back to Twitter.
Last week, I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show, trying to comprehend what had happened at the Capitol, when she reported on Trump’s ouster from Twitter. She essentially said that anyone who’d been forced to follow his disgusting feed was finally free.
I was puzzled by this framing. We’ve always been free. Following Trump is a choice. We have the power to disengage. We’ve always had it. If you see his ban as your emancipation, you need to read some McLuhan. And recognize that it’s not Trump’s tweets, or anyone’s tweets, that represent the true threat. It’s us. It’s what social media has done to us. What we’ve willingly allowed it to do.
We have, in essence, handed the reins of our democracy over to a select group of businesses which, make no mistake, will always make decisions based on profit not what’s morally right.
Twitter muted the President. How did a microblogging site acquire that kind of power? We granted it. All of us, even the insurrectionists at the Capitol who failed to see the staggering irony and hypocrisy of recording their big stand for freedom with their iPhones. (Marc Maron had a great rant on this. I ain’t gonna let no one plant a chip in my head! I’m going down to the Capitol to crack some skulls! Someone punch the address into the GPS!)
If you need more convincing or to be scared straight, I’d strongly urge you to watch the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.”
And while you’re at it, check out another of my faves, Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. I still have my copy from college and pretty much every other paragraph is underlined in ink. There are too many nuggets of genius to include here, but to give you a taste, Postman writes:
When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk.
Media evolves. It will keep evolving. That’s good. But we need to make sure it doesn’t evolve to the point where it destroys us. Unlike Norma Desmond, who was left behind by show biz (“So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”) we are in danger of being wiped out by Big Tech.
Rome fell to the barbarians. Does America fall to the Twitter mob? Do we really want to go down like that?
With the advent of each new medium — radio, TV, the Internet — came fears that this was it. The final, wretched, ruinous advance that would bring the end of civilization as we know it.
But this time, it might be true. Social media really might be the end of civilization as we know it.
So let’s send this medium a message and sign off once and for all.