In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan proposes that media is consumed through different degrees of participation, or “hot” and “cool.” Hot media requires less participation, whereas cool media requires more thought and interaction from the user. This makes social media a very cool medium.
Social media is changing so much about our society. It empowers us to form communities of interest, drives us to enhance content and offer our opinion in various new ways that were once impossible – through video, sound, images and editing to name a few.
McLuhan summarized his ideas about media in a concise tetrad of media effects in the books Laws of Media (1988) and The Global Village (1989). The tetrad analyzes any medium through four main questions:
- What does the medium enhance?
- What does the medium make obsolete?
- What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
- What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?
These categories exist simultaneously, not successively or chronologically. So what does the tetrad mean for social media?
- Enhancement (figure): What the medium amplifies or intensifies. Social media intensifies the ability to communicate, create and interact. It intensifies the feeling of always being “on” because we are constantly connected to everyone else. Social media is public relations in the online world.
- Obsolescence (ground): What the medium drives out of prominence. Social media reduces the importance of traditional media, and gives more of a voice to everyone. It reduces the one-way flow of communication, which is beneficial to PR for listening to its publics.
- Retrieval (figure): What the medium recovers which was previously lost. Social media returns our control over content, and promotes transparency and authenticity. Blogs must be written by the person who is supposed to be writing them, and the posts must be true and genuine. For public relations, this means creating a personal brand for yourself online.
- Reversal (ground): What the medium does when pushed to its limits. Can no longer tell the difference between reality and sponsored conversation. Public relations is often more believable because it doesn’t have the same stigma as advertising, but if more sponsored conversation appears online this could start to change. Can create misinformation, self-appointed policing and fluff.
McLuhan proposed that technologies alter us very much as though they really were extensions of us. Social media takes us out of being passive content consumers and shifts us into being creators. We must remember that we are the creators, the innovators – we choose what direction social media takes us. The future impact of social media is not yet understood by organizations. As McLuhan put it, “Living on the edge of change is terrifying.”