The Message is the Message

The medium is the message. Professor McLuhan’s mantra is now more of a catchphrase. It’s quoted more often than understood and usually to mean something different each time it’s used. I myself never quite grasped what McLuhan was trying to convey, never having been immersed enough in his work. When the phrase is used, it’s usually meant to say that while content is important, how that content is conveyed is equally significant. Mark Federman contends that McLuhan meant something entirely different. Federman argues that the Professor never meant to deny the importance of content or even to equate content with the message. The message was something entirely different. Federman writes,

McLuhan tells us that a “message” is, “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that a new invention or innovation “introduces into human affairs.” Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. Thus, the message of theatrical production is not the musical or the play being produced, but perhaps the change in tourism that the production may encourage.

I’ve now been blogging for a little over a year, prolifically on occasion and sometimes entirely absent for extended periods. Starting out, I had no clear idea what this blog was supposed to be about or what my niche would be and it still seems that way. It started with something of a rant about the show 24 and its endorsement of torture, moved on to another rant about the horse-race coverage of politics, and even saw me step into the controversy surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” the piece of which I’m most proud of writing.  I managed to play a very, very (and I mean very) minor role in calling to save the Ethics Centre at the University of Toronto, and  expressed anxiety about graduate school, which I’ve now survived (barely).

Thus far, my approach to writing and this blog in particular has been simple. I write about whatever the hell I feel like and so far this has worked for me. The biggest success of this blog is that I’ve actually been able to put my thoughts on paper (or screen to be exact) and share them with an audience, usually a very modest one. It’s not easy to pull traffic when you’re existing in your own little corner on the web, but I can’t say that this has ever been my objective. I’ve chosen to remain loyal to Rainer Maria Rilke’s creed about writing, “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” If I managed zero hits, and all that resulted from all this writing was a wasteland of words, I would still do it. This personal space to share my thoughts, write, and have a conversation with myself and hopefully others is a valuable thing in and of itself.

Similarly, I had no concept whatsoever of how “the medium” worked and what was distinct about it. There was no thought concerning how the web or blogging would, in the words of Professor McLuhan, bring me into a world of unique inter-personal dynamics and innovation, but it has. Blogging has become more than a one way outlet by which I could have my say. While I may be stating the obvious, the medium is a powerful one, but most of all one which is not consumeristic  or passive. This medium is raw, often instant, and for better or worse, unedited and uncensored. Most of all, again for better or worse – better as far as I’m concerned – it’s accessible to nearly anyone.

The “message,” as I understand it in McLuhan’s sense, was a direct line to the voice of another. Bloggers, in the great majority of cases, work without editors or for organizations with a predetermined message. As a blogger, you exist outside of the normal journalistic confines of word limits, editorial standards, and perhaps business interests. In fact, the most talented bloggers are just as skilled at the most renowned journalists at providing that added value to facts and events in the form of commentary or new understandings. Think Glenn Greenwald, one of my first inspirations to blog, or the blunt and brilliant Ed at Gin & Tacos. Think the brilliant group of commentators at Vox Nova, astutely exploring the role of the Catholic Church in the world, whether in the realm of politics, culture, economics, or history.

These are just a few examples and there are really too many to name, but while they may not be professional journalists in the traditional sense, Greenwald comes the closest being employed by Salon Magazine, but their writing adds new voices to a greater dialogue or perhaps provides some source of amusement to readers. Each of these writers, or group of writers, manages to blend expertise, wit, and insight with current events, making them worth reading as much as any traditional newspaper columnist. Rebecca Blood nails the value of bloggers, writing,

There are hundreds of talented amateurs who are producing smart, incisive writing every day on their personal sites. These individuals don’t hold to journalistic standards–and that is their strength. Bloggers say what they think, giving reporters a window into the views of those outside the media. Bloggers often find angles that professional reporters have missed, or ask questions reporters have neglected to ask. And bloggers do amazing research. Professional journalists, often working under extreme time pressure, may not have time to research a piece as thoroughly as they would like. Bloggers have no externally imposed deadlines, and no mandate to research equally the claims of both sides.

The strength of blogging as a medium is perhaps that very lack of professional infrastructure, which in turn allows bloggers to freely and directly express ideas and messages. As a result, since I’ve started blogging and paying closer attention to the blogosphere I, and anyone who spends time reading blogs, have been exposed to an incredible multitude of voices from the least likely of places. Andrew Sullivan, the king of all bloggers, writes of the breeding ground for expertise and original thought that the blogosphere has become. Sullivan says,

Not all of it is mere information. Much of it is also opinion and scholarship, a knowledge base that exceeds the research department of any newspaper. A good blog is your own private Wikipedia. Indeed, the most pleasant surprise of blogging has been the number of people working in law or government or academia or rearing kids at home who have real literary talent and real knowledge, and who had no outlet—until now.

In some parts of the world, bloggers risk their very lives by expressing themselves. Though such instances are often accompanied by tragedy and a revolting abuse of human rights, we as readers have only benefitted greatly from the actions of those with the courage to speak their minds and alert the rest of us to happenings in corners of the world to which we never had access to previously. Whether it be the voices of the Arab Spring, reporting from the middle of a transformation of the world as we know it, or a group of experts and professionals interrogating every aspect of the US education system, readers have been granted direct access to the thoughts and ideas of individuals and groups well outside the mainstream of journalism. What’s more is the aforementioned fact that these writers are often free from the constraints of professional writers, though in many cases, the quality of writing and insight is just as strong, and in many cases, superior, to their “professional” counterparts.

What they have in common is an insatiable passion for a topic or cause, and in the best cases, a talent for writing that entices the reader into their world. This is the “message” in McLuhan’s sense that I can immediately observe in this medium. While I am in no way discounting the value of professional journalism or asserting that every single blog is of value or equal value, I find it hard to deny that this medium has brought with it a change in interpersonal dynamics and a great deal of innovation. The medium brings a reader into direct contact with the voice of others, free from a distorting middle-man, bringing one directly into contact with a message in a raw and unedited manner. Blogging, as mentioned, is often instantaneous, and while this may land a writer in hot water, it brings a message to the forefront without constraint. What we see on the screen can sometimes be the product of raw emotion or rage, posted without a second thought. Even that which was carefully screened before publication still often springs from a raw nerve and the desire to interject one’s thoughts into a larger conversation.

The medium brings us the message directly, hence, in the blogosphere, the message is the message. The people formerly known as the audience now have an accessible and easy-to-use outlet, not to mention one that reaches far beyond their immediate local context. The medium, by and large, has been a boon to free and direct expression, and those who consume it may constantly seek out new voices and almost immediately track down dissenting voices to those they have already read. The manner in which the medium has changed us is that is has brought us into a wide array of conversations, in which most of us might freely say what we like. The medium is a platform in which voice, in whatever form, is premium. The message, “the change of scale or pace or pattern” is the message (content) itself, that which is communicated by writers of varying skill, interest, background, location, ideology, etc directly to their readers. In turn, the reader hears directly from another and may often respond or engage in just as direct a manner. The message, the “innovation,” it seems, is the message.

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