Newsflash: Facebook is Media

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From an interesting Jay Newton-Small piece on Sarah Palin:

Her first Facebook post, in August 2009, accused the Obama White House of creating "death panels" as part of health care reform. That offhand remark, as inaccurate as it was incendiary, helped incite weeks of embarrassing town-hall meetings for Democrats, which in turn nearly brought down the Administration's top priority. Palin, working at the time in San Diego on her first book, was surprised by her post's galvanizing power. With just a few keystrokes, she discovered, she could ruin White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' day, or as she puts it, "I find it a great way to communicate with people directly without the media filter."  


My emphasis.


Of course Facebook is media.  Palin means a traditional nightly news or print journal media filter, and while Facebook is certainly different than those (i.e. she's the editor not some other entity), the reality is is that Facebook is a media filter.


And as McLuhan told, the medium is the message. [Edit: My use of McLuhan here has been criticized.  See the comments for that discussion.]  A question worth asking is what the message of Facebook is?  The mediation of a tool whereby you simply declare the truth (what Colbert calls truthiness, of which Palin is the Queen).  


This is what I was trying to get at in my piece reviewing Palin's media strategy with French post-structuralist philosopher Jean Baudrillard.  One of Baudrillard's descendants Thomas de Zengotita covers this topic in his brilliant text Mediated: How The Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It.  

As Baudrillard said, by the repetition of a narrative, of employing rhetoric, we end in a simulacrum, in a hyper-reality where nothing is quite real and everything comes through mediated filters.  

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  • Comment Link Matthew Dallman Friday, 10 December 2010 00:29 posted by Matthew Dallman

    You write:

    "And as McLuhan told, the medium is the message. A question worth asking is what the message of Facebook is? The mediation of a tool whereby you simply declare the truth (what Colbert calls truthiness, of which Palin is the Queen)."

    Um, no. That is an utter misreading of McLuhan in every respect: truly not even close, in either your "interpretation" of Facebook's "message", or your attempt to demonstrate understanding of what "the medium is the message" actually means. Basically, you (like everyone else) mistake figure for ground; the "message" of any medium is never anything related to its content (i.e., your "truthiness" proposal), but rather is concerned with the multitude of secondary effects that are so numerous, diverse, and complicated we tend to forget the cause of it all. "The medium is the message" says that technology, as an extension of some aspect of Dasein, functions as a Formal Cause of Being-in-the-world.

    In other words: electricity, for example, is not commonly thought about except as a bill to pay.

    Now, to be fair, you may or may not be right with the rest of what you wrote; on Palin, Baudrillard, de Zengotita, and the rest. I here leave no comment on that. My point is simply that to connect your thought-direction here with McLuhan is a genuine disservice to McLuhan.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Friday, 10 December 2010 17:37 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for the clarification. I thought the secondary effects of McLuhan was (at least implicitly) tied into Baudrillard. But re-reading it I can see that's not clear at all.

    So what would you say are the secondary effects (or at least some of them) in relation to FB?

    I've added a editor's note in the text directing people to your comment.

  • Comment Link bruce sanguin Tuesday, 14 December 2010 16:18 posted by bruce sanguin

    Interesting "conversation" - except, why doesn't it feel like a conversation?

    Matthew your tone feels angry to me. I don't get why this is necessary.

    If ideas are indeed an extension of the self - a medium - then perhaps we could draw some conclusions about the unanticipated consequences of the academic medium, an unconscious assumption that love and philosophical debate are mutually exclusive, that mind is split off from the heart.

    From my admittedly little reading of McLuhan, the medium of television served to obscure the ground - the unconscious assumptions that were merely perpetuated (i.e. they never attained "figure status") without a conscious reflection on the medium itself.

    That's why he hated TV - the masses were blindly consuming this medium without realizing that they were thereby colluding in the realization of all kinds of unanticipated consequences - the secondary effects which looped back and only served once again to obscure the ground.

    I don't see why "truthiness" is not a valid secondary effect or unanticipated consequence of the medium of FB, serving to obscure the potential destructive impact of FB on society.

    I appreciate your generosity of spirit, Chris.


  • Comment Link Matthew Dallman Tuesday, 14 December 2010 17:36 posted by Matthew Dallman

    I am not aware that McLuhan "hated" television or any other medium. He, like all of us, had his private preferences. Yet he wrote about how television would potentially be an effective mode by which to acquire fluency in non-native languages. His work was not prescriptive, but descriptive.

    Facebook recreates a neighborly relationship people (may) have had decades ago as now a self-determined gated community. Being-in-Facebook recreates a front-porch culture within the bounds of the internet. Sometimes the user walks through the neighborhood -- perhaps to exchange a few words with a neighbor, perhaps to merely notice others on their front porches, both of which become "updates" with subsequent "comments" or mere "likes" -- and other times the person sees empty front porches, and still other times the user sits on his front porch and lets others notice him, another update-exchange.

    The secondary effects of Facebook, as for any medium, are the observable changes both in human behavior and attitudes towards Being-in-the-world. There are both significant and insignificant secondary effects; the greater preponderance being in the latter. The significant secondary effects are seen in how, in this case, Facebook rearranges one's day on the individual level, and rearranges societal relationships from couples to families all the way to the entire human collective.

    Facebook transforms one's Being-in-the-world (aka, their aware life) into "standing reserve" that is strategically employed through the specific Facebook user-structure. One doesn't merely live their life moment to moment; they constantly question whether an moment just experienced can be framed into an "update" given Facebook's pre-determined constraints.

    Further, to use Facebook means one temporarily uninhabits one's meat-space social network of that moment. Whether running to use the computer, or via one's cellphone, awareness leaves the immediate environment and enters their self-determined virtual gated community. Of course, to be fair to Facebook, this is less an effect specific to Facebook than it the message of the internet at large, within which lives Facebook. And, like much of the internet, Facebook is often an activity whereby one wastes time or diverts from less-desirable tasks (such as when at work).

    Businesses use Facebook to market their products; hence we see an adaptation of marketing communication so as to attempt to resonate within the gated communities.

    Again, just to stress a point McLuhan constantly stressed, all of these secondary effects function systematically as the "message" of a medium; and the message has NOTHING to do with, in this face, specific words/ideas/audio-visual content, etc. In McLuhan's uses, "content" takes on a special meaning: the content of any medium is one or more additional mediums. This becomes a kind of fractal-like understanding of Being-in-media.

    In other words, the message of a medium must be the same no matter what people post on Facebook. Now, the message does depend upon how often one uses Facebook. Its effects are significant for everyday, regular users, and insignificant for people who use it rarely.

  • Comment Link bruce sanguin Wednesday, 15 December 2010 07:39 posted by bruce sanguin

    Thanks Matthew,

    I'm officially out of my league and checking out.

    But you might find this interesting:

    McLuhan once said to his friend and colleague Tom Langan, while watching television, “Do you really want to know what I think of that thing? If you want to save one shred of Hebrao-Greco-Roman-Medieval-Renaissance-Enlightenment-Modern-Western civilization, you’d better get an ax and smash all the sets.”[3] And he was no more accommodating to the electronic beast in his advice to his son Eric regarding one of Eric’s daughters in a 1976 letter: “Try not to have Emily exposed to hours and hours of TV. It is a vile drug which permeates the nervous system, especially in the young.”

    Written by James C. Morrison, MIT, No Prophet Without Honour.

    Has a prescriptive tone to my ears.

  • Comment Link Matthew Dallman Wednesday, 15 December 2010 14:51 posted by Matthew Dallman

    Not really, Bruce. Actually, that sounds like his personal preference. My point was that his published work reflected no "hate". Surely you can understand the difference. His work sought to elucidate a means whereby people would be able to understand the effects of contemporary technology on their Being-in-the-world, so as to not be asleep at the wheel and thereby in a sense controlled by the technology. It was, in fact, all descriptive, with no prescription, anywhere. He never published his letters directly.

    Posthumously, letters have come out (such as in the excellent book dealing with religion, "The Medium and the Light"). You'll find more personal opinions in there, what we are calling here prescriptive language.

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