Many media theories tend to focus on the content that media produces and perhaps how this content affects the audience or how the audiences receive the information they are given. Marshall McLuhan’s Medium Theory is not among these. His theory claims that content produced by a medium is not as important as the medium itself. McLuhan claims that the “medium is the message,” meaning that how the introduction of new media into society changes patterns of social affairs is exactly the message of that media (McLuhan, 1964).
McLuhan’s theory, at first look, appears to be quite counterintuitive. What could be more crucial in media theory than what these platforms are being used to say? Haven’t we always believed it wasn’t the medium that mattered, but how we use it? Because the medium theory seems to claim the opposite of what we’ve all come to believe about media, it’s easy to discredit it. A closer look, however, can reveal how the medium theory is relevant to our lives today.
When discussing examples of how the introduction of new mediums has affected society and the way we interact, McLuhan cites automation, how the factory machine used fragmentation to change the way we did work. He also mentions the railway and airplane, and how these each changed our view of the city and how we associated with one another. He then discusses how movies changed our world to one of “creative configuration and structure” and that television affected our sense of place as it extended our senses (McLuhan, 1964). It seems more sensible, therefore, that McLuhan claims the medium is the message when we focus on the impact of such mediums.
What about today? With so many social media outlets, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and many more, is it possible to say how we use such media, the posts we make and the conversations we share, are not important? McLuhan might look at the introduction of social media into society and examine how it has changed us. It has surely changed the way we disseminate information and where we view such information. It has connected people in a new and different way as it lends itself to nearly constant communication. It even made people more willing to share their own experiences, thoughts, and opinions, giving people an altered sense of the voice they have in society.
The main message of medium theory is that media changes how we perceive the world and each other, whether we approve of this or not. Today, no matter what the 140 characters we use on Twitter say and regardless of which photo we choose to share on Instagram, social media as a whole greatly affects how we interact by deeply expanding the range of our communication. While it may seem that what we type and post is the only thing that matters, the more essential message is the medium itself and the fact that we perceive the world in a completely different way because of it.