the medium is the message

This is part 2 of an ongoing* series about the Internet. Last week, I talked about how social media was my conduit to self-actualization (at least once I emerged from underneath the rock where I’d been hiding from Instagram for five years). This week, I counter that thesis by arguing that the Internet is a medium that is destroying our messages, and I’m not just talking about being limited to 140 characters. Next week, I’ll write about the meaning of identity in the machine learning era.

*It was going to be 3 parts and then it was going to be 2 parts but now it’s going to be 3 parts again and in the course of writing those 3 parts I’ve realized that I have A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT THE INTERNET, so why limit myself?

I didn’t expect that trying to learn about search engine optimization would trigger my latest existential crisis, but there you have it. (It’s been that kind of year, hasn’t it? I can’t figure out if it’s the omnipresent threat of nuclear war or if this is just what it’s like to be 28.)

I was trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing if you actually want people to read your blog. This in and of itself wasn’t that eye-opening, because I know perfectly well that there’s a metric fuckton of content on the Internet and you’re supposed to be doing some voodoo magic to make sure that when people Google “Dana Cass” they don’t come up with someone’s Florida mugshot. (Someone else’s. I’ve never been arrested in Florida, although I did consider burning down Harry Potter World when I went there in October, realizing that I had paid the equivalent of three new pairs of shoes to lay waste to my most precious childhood memories. The frozen butterbeer was really good, though.)

So I’m reading about SEO, which already feels like the used car salesman patter of the digital age, and then I came across this saga of how mattress reviews are actually just a proxy for the battle to dominate an oversaturated market. And then I was trying to figure out what to do with my books while I’m living abroad next year, and it turns out you basically can’t find anything unbiased about long-term storage. It’s literally all so-called sponsored content. (Pardon me if I don’t link it here lest I negatively impact my SEO with links to low-quality content. You, too, can Google “long term storage nyc” if you want to dispel the few illusions you had left about the democratization of information being net positive.)

“Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”

“Sponsored” is a euphemism for “paid,” which means that what you’re reading is an advertisement disguised as neutral information. This is not the first time I’ve thought about the elusiveness of truth on the Internet. As it turns out, that’s a hot topic lately. But I’ve felt lately that a number of threads I’ve been tracking are beginning to converge, specifically: there is a metric fuckton of words on the Internet and consequently, the words themselves matter increasingly less.

I was reading some casual media theory a few weeks back. (Quick piece of advice: reconnecting with my academic self has been a great way to navigate the apocalypse without going completely insane. I balance out the New York Times with selections from my college bookshelf.) I didn’t spend much energy in college on anything that happened in the past hundred years. I spent most of my time on the nineteenth century — including a semester where, memorably, I managed to write more than one final term paper on the relatively narrow topic of the Shakers — so last month was the first time that I’d actually read Marshall McLuhan of “the medium is the message” fame.

In the course of my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about data and technology and the impact their use and misuse have on our daily lives. I spend much of my spare time writing. I don’t often think about the connection between the two beyond how I apply my talent as a writer in service of my company, where I was hired in 2012 to write proposals and white papers. I had heard the term “content marketing” and I assumed that that was what I was doing: writing things to get people to buy something. It was only when I started applying to content marketing jobs that I learned that even though I’m a better writer than most people I know, writing is not actually the point.

An entire massive cottage industry has sprung up around “content marketing,” which is not the art of writing well to describe what your company can offer a client but the science of getting in front of as many eyeballs as possible. It’s “the medium is the message” taken to the extreme, where every resource is brought to bear against the medium and the message itself is, if anything, an afterthought. The objective is no longer truth or even precision but rather a sort of association, where if you walk away thinking Manhattan Mini Storage is long-term storage the content marketer has done their job right.

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.”

I have always held writing as sort of a pure act, even in the context of my profession. I write to convey truth. I don’t hold sales or marketing as antithetical to the pursuit of truth, at least not in their traditional forms. Content marketing, though, strikes me as a bastardization of my talents as a writer. Nobody has any illusions about the intent of a proposal or a white paper or even an advertisement on the subway. But an advertisement disguising itself as advice on how to improve your work from home experience? No, thank you. Stick with product placement and let the writers pursue their truth. (And when it comes to how the art of writing has been bastardized in service of moneymaking, don’t even get me started on internet journalism.)

Some time after I discovered that I can’t be a content marketer because I didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to optimize my blog content for search engines, I moved to a new role inside of my company. Today, I often help people who aren’t speakers prepare talks for large audiences. Most of this work is therapy — reminding people that “The audience wants to hear you share what you have to say!” in hopes that they will remember that their arms are attached to their bodies and that they might even consider occasionally moving them — but a surprising amount of it is simply trying to get people to just say what they’re trying to get across in plain language.

How does this relate to content marketing? It’s just another symptom of the epidemic of not being able, or no longer caring, to speak meaningfully. I work mostly with engineers who think a lot about data — information — and how to make it usable. They tend to think about speaking in the same way, where the actual thing that they’re trying to say is secondary to the way in which they say it. “So I’m going to talk about x, y, and z,” they tell me. We go into rehearsal a few weeks later, and they talk all around x, y, and z, and they ask me for ways to visualize x, y, and z, and at some point I look at them and say, “Well, why don’t you just say x, y, and z?”

Every time, it’s somehow a revelation to both of us that it can actually be that simple. In a world where we are inundated by content, speaking truth without the trappings of search engine optimization or fancy slides feels as impractical as speaking truth without a microphone. The message doesn’t matter if it’s buried in the medium. (I think I’m abusing McLuhan here, but bear with me.)

That’s upsetting, isn’t it? I’ve been in ongoing conversation with a singer-songwriter friend of mine who recently deleted his Facebook account because he’s sick of how promotion on social media — and, increasingly, success as an artist — depends on your ability and willingness to manipulate the ranking system. He doesn’t feel like tying his success to his being able to fund Facebook ads, nor does he feel like his success should be something that Facebook gets to monetize.

This is even more insidious when you think about the inevitable politicization of the mediums we’ve come to rely on to speak our truths. Maybe it was idealistic to think that art and truth were pure — patronage has always existed; newspapers have always had editors — but today it feels that they are elusive. Before the Internet democratizes information, it bastardizes it. Why are you reading what you’re reading, or listening to what you’re listening to? Who paid for it to reach you? What’s their end goal and how do you, the the content consumer, figure into it? Are you the actor or the audience and who wrote the script, anyway? Do art, truth, and opinion still exist or are they all just a function of who’s paying whom to do what? 

And man! All you wanted to do was buy a new mattress.

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