“The medium is the message.” — Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan is supposed to have predicted the World Wide Web decades before it ever came into being. He was, in his day, the leading thinker regarding communication theory, and his quote above is the very first thing I remember learning at Berry College, in the fall of 1993, when I entered there as a freshman majoring in broadcast communication. Essentially, he argued that any medium of communication has an affect on the message itself–it’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts–and so attention must be paid to the medium we choose for any given message, because of how it will shape (or perhaps even distort) that message.
I can still hear my professor’s voice teaching us the words, can still see them scribbled across the top of a page of a wide-ruled notebook, my preference for classroom note-taking, and I can still remember the first paper I wrote that fall–for Dr. Dan Panici’s introductory broadcast journalism course–that helped me explore McLuhan’s theory. The paper compared/contrasted media coverage of the Vietnam War versus the (then much more recent, and, as it turned out, first) Iraq War, and how that coverage’s technological advancement affected our understanding of war, its impact on our day-to-day lives, and, even if indirectly, our capacity for understanding what was real and what was not in news coverage.
I’m super fuzzy on all that theory now, I’ll be honest. But I’ve had McLuhan’s phrase at the forefront of my brain these last few days. Mostly because social media is proving him right. And yes, I’m looking at you specifically, Twitter and Facebook.
I’ve been talking about it some with a dear friend. A woman of deep, deep faith who is an incredible leader and one of my greatest supports both personally and professionally. I’ve told her how heartsick I am for our nation. How brutal I see us being to one another, to those we hardly know, or know not at all, as we click and comment and share, generally on a whim, and almost always as a reaction to something we’ve seen that has evoked an emotional response of some sort. I do not see us stopping to ask, “Is this true?” I do not see us taking a breath and then taking some time to collect more information. I do not see us treating one another in the space that is social media in ways we’d be willing to ‘fess up to publicly, with our grandmothers listening and our children watching.
It’s easier in the darkness that falls behind a computer screen, you know, to call names…and issue edicts…and make fun and jab…and assume for Gospel-truth something that has been photo-shopped, edited for agenda, and/or outright manufactured to support a certain viewpoint.
I see us making the political quagmire our nation is in much worse. I see us fostering the very hate we speak against. I see us judging at the click of a mouse. I see us using snark as our finely exacted weapon against that which we disagree with. And I see us adopting hot-take-ready outrage as our new national pastime as opposed to actually getting in there, and doing the fiercely hard work of real relationship, real listening, real reconciliation.
In my heartbreak, these are the words my friend said to me, loosely paraphrased, “We’ve been here before. We’ve seen this hatred and division before. We’ve seen this being so unkind to each other before. We have been here before. What’s changed are the tools we have to express it all. We used to write letters or make phone calls or visits…and now we just “click” without even thinking or stopping to assess what is real and what isn’t.”
What’s changed are the tools we have to express it all….
“The medium is the message.”
It is clear to me that social media is shaping our public discourse in ways that are setting us back instead of moving us forward.
It is clear to me that the anonymity of Twitter breeds a kind of toxicity that is hard to combat.
It is clear to me that Facebook is awash–awash, people!–with fake news of all sorts and from all sides and from all agendas.
It is clear to me that we have sought refuge in our profile pages during a terribly frightening and fraught-with-conflict time in our communities and our country, as opposed to actually sitting down with someone we vehemently disagree with and simply saying, “Help me understand.”
This is all especially clear to me when it comes to those of us who profess Christianity. Or really any of the major world religions that speak first of love and kindness and last (if at all) of violence and hatred. Because the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” is 1) much more difficult than we like to admit, 2) never exactly what we think, and 3) not something you or I get to dictate.
I cannot claim to know what Jesus would do. But what I have read over and over, and experienced again and again, tells me that whatever Jesus would do, incredible grace and all-encompassing love would be the driving forces.
It is also clear to me that social media can be a happy and helpful place, where valiant causes are supported and real, important news is sometimes posted that helps us understand the world, and families and friends can connect, and good news can be shared, and feel-good stories are cast far and wide so that we can remember our humanity…but y’all…these things are not what we’re letting shape us. We are not heeding our better angels when it comes to our social media engagement.
And it will be our undoing.
My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, died last week. One of her most-loved poems includes these words, “What is it you want to do with your one, wild precious life?”
One. One wild and precious life. Do you want it defined by Facebook? Do you want it to be shaped by Twitter? Do you want your fleeting second in this world, your message, to be documented in the comments section of a story you just loved or just hated?
No matter my love for the connections I have made and maintain on the old book-face, and no matter how much more this blog might get read because of the very medium I am angry at…my answer to that question is a resounding “No.”
I want my message defined by words strung together in the sentences I love to create…by my daughter’s laugh and her lovely voice…by my love for the outdoors and for homeless dogs…even by the awful mistakes I have made, and the hurt and pain I have known, maybe even unknowingly caused at times, because these are the things that have taught me the refining power of mercy and the redemptive goodness of grace…and, perhaps most of all, I want my message defined by my relationships and a willingness to enter into them with all of me, broken parts and all.
I believe we can do better. I believe that all is not lost. But we gotta find some better tools, y’all. Some better ways of communicating. Some more authentic messages. Some desire to set aside everything we think we know and begin again the work of being fellow Americans, no matter our skin color, our gender, our socioeconomic status. No matter who we choose to love, no matter where we worship, and no matter our political party.
It’s hard, hard work. But the truth is that we don’t really have a viable choice except to do it.