I’ve been rereading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately and I’m as confounded as ever by his conception of hot vs. cool media. And so I decided to try to test my thinking by comparing the phenomena of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at this millennial media wendepunkt, as text and television give way to the net and whatever it becomes. I’ll also try to address the question: Why is @aoc driving the GOP mad?
McLuhan said that text and radio were hot media in that they were high-definition; they monopolized a sense (text the eye, radio the ear); they filled in all the blanks for the reader/listener and required or brooked no real interaction; they created — as we see with newspapers and journalism — a separation of creator from consumer. Television, he said, was a cool medium for it was low-definition across multiple senses, requiring the viewer to interact by filling in the blanks, starting quite literally with the blanks between the raster lines on the cathode-ray screen. “Low-definition invites participation,” explains McLuhan’s recently departed son Eric. (Thanks to Eric’s son, Andrew McLuhan, for sending me to this delightful video:)
Given that McLuhan formulated his theory at the fuzzy, black-and-white, rabbit-ears genesis of television, I wonder how much the label would be readjusted with 4K video and huge, wrap-around screens and surround sound. Eric McLuhan answers that hot v. cool is a continuum. I also wonder — as does every McLuhan follower — what the master would say about the internet. That presumes we can yet call the internet a thing unto itself and define it, which we can’t; it’s too early. So I’ll narrow the question to social media today.
And that brings us to Trump v. Ocasio-Cortez. Recall that McLuhan said that Richard Nixon lost his debate with John F. Kennedy because Nixon was too hot for the cool medium of TV. He told Playboy:
Kennedy was the first TV president because he was the first prominent American politician to ever understand the dynamics and lines of force of the television iconoscope. As I’ve explained, TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn’t have such cool, low-definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television — as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was essentially hot; he presented a high-definition, sharply-defined image and action on the TV screen that contributed to his reputation as a phony — the “Tricky Dicky” syndrome that has dogged his footsteps for years. “Would you buy a used car from this man?” the political cartoon asked — and the answer was no, because he didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.
As TV became hotter — as it became high-definition — it found its man in Trump, who is as hot and unsubtle as a thermonuclear blast. Trump burns himself out with every appearance before crowds and cameras, never able to go far enough past his last performance — and it is a performance — to find a destination. He is destruction personified and that’s why he won, because his voters and believers yearn to destroy the institutions they do not trust, which is every institution we have today. Trump then represents the destruction of television itself. He’s so hot, he blew it up, ruining it for any candidate to follow, who cannot possibly top him on it. Kennedy was the first cool television politician. Obama was the last cool TV politician. Trump is the hot politician, the one who then took the medium’s every weakness and nuked it. TV amused itself to death.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not a candidate of television or radio or text because media — that is, journalists — completely missed her presence and success, didn’t cover her, and had to trip over each other to discover her long after voters had. How did voters discover her? How did she succeed? Social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube….
I think McLuhan’s analysis here would be straightforward: Social media are cool. Twitter in particular is cool because it provides such low-fidelity and requires the world to fill in so much, not only in interpretation and empathy but also in distribution (sharing). And Ocasio-Cortez herself is cool in every definition.
She handles her opponents brilliantly on social media, always flying above, never taking flack from them. Some people say she’s trolling the Republicans but I disagree. Trolling’s sole purpose is to get a rise out of an opponent, to make them angry and force them to react. She does not do that. She consistently states her positions and policies with confidence; let the haters hate. Yes, she shoots at her opponents, but like a sniper, always from her position, her platform.
She uses the net not only to make pronouncements but to build a community, a constituency that is larger than her district.
And her constituents respond.
Now I know some of you will argue that Trump is also a genius at Twitter because, after all, he governs by it. But I disagree. Trump’s tweets get the impact they get only because they are amplified by big, old media making stories in print and TV every single time he hits the big, blue button. Trump treats cool Twitter like he treats cool TV: with a flamethrower. On Twitter, he doesn’t win anything he hasn’t already won. Indeed, in his desperation to outdo himself, I think (or hope), it is by Twitter that he destroys himself through revealing too much of his ignorance and hate. That’s not cool.
Trump and his allies don’t know how to tweet but Ocasio-Cortez does — and that’s what so disturbs and confounds the GOP about @aoc. They think it should be so simple: just tweet your press releases — your “social media statements,” as their leader recently said — plus your best lines from speeches that get the loudest, hottest applause and rack up the most followers like the highest TV ratings and you will win. No. Twitter, Facebook, et al are not means to make a mass, like TV was. They are means to develop relationships and trust and to gather people around not just a person but also an idea, a cause, a common goal. That’s how Ocasio-Cortez uses them.
I want to be careful not to diminish Ocasio-Cortez as merely a social-media phenom, nor to build her up into some omniscient political demigod who will not stumble; she will. She is a talented, insightful politician who has the courage of her progressive and socialist convictions. Even when old media tries to goad a fight — because old media feed on the fight — over Ocasio-Cortez’ college dancing video, she still manages to bring the discussion back to her stands, her agenda. That is what drives them nuts.
Everyone ends up dancing to her tune. But they don’t talk about the dancing. They talk about the policy — her foes and her allies alike. She suggests a 70% tax rate for the richest and here come her enemies and then some experts, who have her back:
So what lessons do we learn from the early days of @aoc as possibly the first true, native politician of social media, not old media?
I think the GOP will eventually learn that anger is a flame that runs out of fuel. Anger stands against everything, for nothing. Anger builds nothing, not even a wall. Oh, anger is easy to exploit and media will help you exploit it, but that takes you nowhere. Lots of people might want to scream with the screamy guy, but who wants to invite him home for dinner? Trump is the angry celebrity and you end up knowing everything you want to know about him by watching him; there is nothing to fill in because he is so hot. “If somebody starts screaming at you, you don’t move in closer, you back up a little. And if they get a little rowdy and scream a little louder, you back up a little more. You don’t move in closer and start hugging,” Eric McLuhan explains in the video above. “A really hot situation like that… doesn’t require or even invite involvement.”
@aoc is a little mysterious, someone you want to know better; she is cool. The GOP has no cool politicians. The Democrats do not need their Trump, their celebrity, their hot personality. They should be grateful they have someone like Ocasio-Cortez to teach them how to be cool, if they are smart enough to watch and learn.
Media, too, have much to learn. We in journalism must see that our old, hot media — text and TV — are of the past. They won’t go away but they probably won’t be trusted again. If we journalists have any hope of meeting our mission of informing the public, we have to use our new tools of the net to build relationships of authenticity and trust as humans, not institutions. We need to measure our success not based on mass but instead based on value and trust. Then we have to find a place to stand — on the platform of facts would be a lovely spot — and stay there, relying on principle and not on a mushy foundation built of fake balance or fleeting popularity or our own savvy. This is social journalism.
Oh, and we also need to learn that the next politician worth paying attention to won’t come to us with press releases and press people trying to get them on TV as that won’t matter to them. They are already out there building relationships with their constituents on social media and we need new means to listen to what is happening there.
There is one more confounding McLuhan lesson to grapple with here: that the medium is the message, that content is meaningless but it’s the medium itself that models a way to see the world. McLuhan argued that linear, bounded text by its very form taught us to how to think. The line, he said — and this sentence is an example — became our organizing principle. Books have borders and so do nations. This, I’ll argue, is why Trump wants to build his wall: a last, desperate border as all borders crumble.
McLuhan said electricity broke that linearity and he saw the beginnings of what could happen to our worldviews with the impact of television upon us. But that was only the beginning. Imagine what he would say about Twitter, Facebook, et al. I think he would tell us to pay attention not to the content — see: fake news! — but instead to learn from the form. What does social media teach us to do? What does the net itself teach us to do? To connect.