Sometimes I get the feeling that both critics and proponents of the internet-as-a-cultural-phenomenon are sort of missing the point - or at least, are talking around the point. Take this piece from the Los Angeles Times, in which Neal Gabler describes what he calls "Zuckerberg's Revolution" - an attack on communication as we know it, which "may even challenge the very idea of serious ideas." The revolution is led, of course, by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg - a 26-year-old symbol of both genius and careless selfishness (he is, after all, a millennial) - whose fighting words were to announce "a new form of messaging". This announcement constitutes the start of a revolution because, Gabler writes, citing Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase, "how we communicate largely defines what we communicate. You know: 'The medium is the message.'"
Gabler goes on to describe McLuhan's argument in The Gutenberg Galaxy that "the printing press resulted in…humans with a new consciousness shaped by the non-visual, non-auditory culture of print." Gabler then posits that "print made us think better or, at least, with greater discipline."
Which may well be true, though how would you quantify thinking better? Anyhow, part of the point is that eventually television - a reversion to the visual, a step away from the rational - came along and freaked everybody out, including Neil Postman, who "blamed TV for making us mindless."
Gabler's argument seems to be that now, something even worse (!) than television has come along - not just Zuckerberg, though he gives a face to the evil, but the Internet itself - and as a result, we're living in "a society in which tens of millions of people feel compelled to tell tens of millions of other people that they are eating a sandwich or going to a movie or watching a TV show." Somehow this equals what Gabler calls "empty communication". But I fail to understand his inability - or rather, because I believe that human beings are still able to think well, I fail to understand his stubborn refusal - to consider that new forms of communication - the printing press, the television, the text message, whatever - have simply made us (helped us!) think differently.
It seems to me that what we're doing is adding layers to the cake of human communication, making it richer, not less substantial. First there was The Spoken Word. Then there was The Book. Then there was The Television Show. Now there is, in addition, The Tweet, The Text, The Email, The Blog Post, The Piece of Text With Hyperlinks To Other Texts.
This last one is important. Whether it's via a blog post, an article, or a Wikipedia entry, the ability to interface so easily with other texts, and moreover, with other forms of communication, is a major development. Online communication takes all of the things we've used in the past to, as Gabler puts it, facilitate "complex ideas", and allows us to reference them in a new space where things are not limited by geography or time or anything physical. And in this new space, the mediums - plural - are perhaps not really the message, in spite of what Gabler may think.
Gabler is not the only critic to invoke McLuhan in a discussion of online communication. A few months ago, Jonathan Jones wrote a piece for the Guardian in which he suggests that, "Marshall McLuhan was wrong…the medium is not the message. What you put on the medium is the message."
Refreshingly, Jones is actually defending the internet, or at least suggesting that it's perhaps less detrimental to our attention spans than we think. But as Andrew Dubber suggested in a comment on the piece, Jones' interpretation of McLuhan's remark is not really accurate: "McLuhan was not saying…that the content didn't matter," writes Dubber, adding, "the point is that digital technologies, by changing the primary mode of our communication from read-only to read/write, are profound and radical forces in the lives of the human beings that use them."
I couldn't agree more. I'm not convinced that invoking McLuhan in the way that Gabler - and indeed Jones - have done really enhances the conversation, because I'm not convinced that doing so actually addresses what's new and interesting about our digital age, which is that communication is no longer passive or one-sided. It's interactive and conversational, and that changes things.
When I studied McLuhan, it was as part of a degree in politics. In the classroom, we applied his phrase to (political) persuasion - what does the choice to televise something rather than broadcast it on the radio, for instance, mean to a campaign? Which medium will be most effective to convey what messages?
In this interpretation, choice becomes important. It's not so much that "how we communicate…defines what we communicate" - it's more that how we communicate correlates directly to how effectively our message is received and spread. And so where online communication is concerned, if the message is anywhere, it's at least partly in our choices of methods, not the methods themselves.
For example: I choose to write a blog post about this particular topic because it is the most effective (read: persuasive) channel available to me. Later I will probably choose to use Twitter in order to say something more banal which nevertheless may, in the end, spark thought or even other texts (a song, for instance, or another blog post).
The reason online communication, therefore, is so powerful, is not because of its destructive qualities; not because "the medium is the message", and the medium is mindless, but because there are so many overlaps and channels between one form of communicating and another. There is no single digital medium, but there is a digital environment, which is why a tweet about, say, avocado on toast - which Gabler would presumably see as a symptom of a sick society - is actually more than a tweet about avocado on toast. It is the sum of all its potential. It is simultaneously a broadcast and an invitation for conversation or interpretation, or both. So, in some ways, might a televised documentary or a book be, but the difference - the scary, beautiful difference - is that online, we have the option to respond instantly, in kind or not in kind, to build layers and then layers again upon other texts. Interpretation and interaction become constructive.
"You could call this a metaphor for modern life, increasingly narcissistic and trivial, except that the sites and posts are modern life for hundreds of millions of people," Gabler writes. I fail to see how that is not interesting in itself. Communication is now a space to inhabit, rather than a string between two cans. It is three dimensional. Look at dialogue, at the pauses between what I say and you say, what he says and she says. What's in those pauses is as important as what's in each sentence. Online communication gives breath to this idea - it is the space between a text and our reaction to it. And the message is not in the medium: it's in the spaces in between, and the opportunity that these spaces represent.
"Social media is not the destination that replaces serious discourse; it’s the very vehicle that brings people to deeper information experiences, including blogs, message boards and yes, misguided LAT op-ed," writes Andrew Wallenstein in a rebuttal of Gabler's piece. "The more communication that takes place—an increase facilitated in part by the pithiness of 140-character blips—the more opportunities there are to bring people and/or content together for the kind of meaningful exchanges they wouldn’t otherwise have."
"All thumbs and no brains," Gabler writes. But I can't think of another time in history when thumbs were so relentlessly communicative, when 140 characters had so much potential to become so much more.