Social Networking: Audience as Content

"I had this guy leave me a voice mail at work, so I called him at home, and then he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and then he emailed me to my home account, and the whole thing just got out of control, and I miss the days when you had one phone number and one answering machine, and that one answering machine had one cassette tape, and that one cassette tape either had a message from a guy or it didn’t, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting.."


– Mary, He’s Just Not That Into You


"The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."


– Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

When it comes to understanding media, its uses, and its impact on society, Marshall McLuhan is an often overlooked intellectual gold mine. McLuhan predicted we were moving towards an interconnected network of "electric light" where any person in the world would be able to communicate with any other person anywhere else in the world instantaneously. And he predicted this some forty years before the Internet was invented.

Today, with more than half of Facebook's 350 million active users logging in every day to peruse more than 3.5 billion pieces of content, it is clear that social networking appeals to a deeply rooted psychological trigger in virtually everyone. Just what itch Facebook scratches has been speculated about by everyone from anthropologists to marketing gurus. And very few seem to have a handle on this phenomenon.

Marshall McLuhan explained that all media, from wheels to televisions and everything in between, are "extensions" of our own being. And he observed that any new media increases the scale, scope, and reach of humankind. And this increase will augment the consequences, for better or worse, of every choice we make.

The Axemaker's Gift by James Burke and Robert Ornstein recently brought this idea into focus by studying primitive tribal culture. Burke and Ornstein observed that giving an axe to a tribe immediately changed the tribe tremendously. Everything from work to warfare became altered and with it the way the group understood the world and their place in it. Social bonds fragmented, traditional roles changed, and the tribe ceased to exist as it did before the "gift" was introduced.

Theoretically, every "media" – every extension of ourselves – we invent has this individuating and fragmenting effect on us. Deeply rooted personal connections meant survival for early man. But as we developed clothing, transportation, and a myriad of other technologies, we relied less on each other and consequently tribal village life became more and more abstruse to us.

But with the explosion of social networking, it would appear the desires for those deeply rooted personal connections of the tribe have been tapped into. Ever since the invention of electricity, McLuhan observed we have been "re-tribalizing" ourselves. He pointed out the effect of the phone, computer, and the Internet (among countless other technologies) is the imploding of our world all around us. And after having been isolated from each other by space and time for all of our history, we are suddenly virtual neighbors with everyone we have ever met.

This has boundless consequences, as McLuhan predicted when he wrote about this "global village" a generation ago. The above quote from Mary in the film He's Just Not That Into You eloquently expresses the fear, pressure, and anxiety most people and businesses feel while trying to work out a social networking presence. The fact that McLuhan foresaw this makes him a prescient voice when it comes to understanding this new world.

Modern science is backing up McLuhan's predictions. Professor Michael Wesch points out McLuhan may have been more right than anyone realizes. Wesch studies how people forge social relationships in primitive cultures. He has used the same methods to study how people forge bonds on Facebook:

"In tribal cultures, your identity is completely wrapped up in the question of how people know you. When you look at Facebook, you can see the same pattern at work: people projecting their identities by demonstrating their relationships to each other. You define yourself in terms of who you're friends are."

Facebook extends our entire being instant across the web so that space becomes obsolete in communication, bringing us all "closer" together. But the understanding the axe maker's gift of social networking, like all media, means considering both sides of the blade. Wesch nails this point down in his assessment of Facebook relationships:

"There’s also this fundamental distance. That distance makes it safe for people to connect through weak ties where they can have the appearance of a connection because it’s safe."

Early man had a small village, but his connections were necessarily deep. In today's global village, our network spans the entire world, but the connections are necessarily shallow. This is a key point that is often overlooked when it comes to social networking. So keep Marshall McLuhan in mind while "poking" that date from Friday night or while developing a social networking presence for your business, and your chances of success with either will be greatly improved.

  1. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshal McLuhan, 1964.
  2. The Axemaker's Gift: A Doubled-Edged History of Human Culture by James Burke and Robert Ornstein, 1995.
  3. Facebook Statistics
  4. Friending, Ancient or Otherwise by Alex Wright, December 2007
  5. The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan Playboy Magazine, March 1969
  6. Tools for Tech Thinking: McLuhan on Twitter by John Dyer, February 2009.
  7. What Marshall McLuhan Knew About Social Media by Jay Moonah, January 2009
  8. Pegging Down Social Media by Talk2Us, 2009
  9. McLuhan, Socrates and Edith Wharton On Social Media by Joel Postman, September 2009
  10. The McLuhan Conic: Understanding Social Media by Kenneth M. Kambara, June 2009
  11. What Would Marshall McLuhan Say by Larry Mendte, April 2009
Michael White

Michael White

Business Specialist at Doc4 Design