Photo: Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

Marshall McLuhan was a smart dude. He totally got the Internet, even though he died long before it became mainstream.

“The medium is the message” has been intellectually gnawed on for decades. What’s particularly fascinating is that the words, and McLuhan’s point, have remained true, though the media in question have continued to change and evolve.

Even further down the rabbit hole, we’re talking about two different levels of media. What media do we use to deliver the media? Huh?

Think about it. For example, one enfeebled form of media ­– the newspaper – delivers media: words and pictures. TV (y’know, Netflix) has pictures, video, and audio. The Internet has all of these things. No word yet on the return of Smell-O-Vision, but haptics and other sensory tech continue to evolve, so I’m sure we’ll get all our senses hooked up eventually, if William Gibson was even remotely on the money.

I remember the first time I wrote a blog post and hyperlinked to other content to provide further information, explanation, and entertainment. As someone who had to assemble bibliographies and footnotes almost entirely from dead tree books all through school, it was a bit mind-blowing.

It provided a whole other language to express and explain myself, and to try to connect with others. Ahh, but that’s not the biggest opportunity of the flexibility of online media. If you’re focusing on what it can do for you, you’re probably missing out on the really great stuff.

Online media is a language. Actually, it is a wide collection of languages, as surely as any UN gathering. And it is as important, arguably more so, to understand what others are communicating as it is to get them to understand you.

Some of the language is used to help people get woke, or to understand huge, awful concepts like why people become refugees. And some of the language is used to share pictures of cats and crazy Christmas lights

This is where the variety that media affords us comes in. Describing media as transcendent can sound hokey, but consider that we don’t all speak or read the same languages. What do we resort to then? Pictures. Online, it’s literal pictures. In person, things like ersatz sign language, charades and napkin sketches.

Additionally, not all languages have the right words for certain concepts or experiences. (Even German, which tends to just jam words together until the idea is good enough…) And sometimes language just can’t provide the necessary impact.

In these instances, visual media take over. Many of the most memorable moments in history remain so because of iconic images. I bet at least one just came to mind.

The irony, as any designer could tell you, is that turning something into an icon strips it of detail. Phan Thi Kim Phuc, for example, becomes the Vietnam War’s “Napalm Girl.” Sharbat Gula becomes National Geographic’s refugee “Afghan Girl” during the Soviet occupation of her country. Most recently we have “the boy on the beach.” (His name is Alan Kurdi.)

Video can be similarly powerful. It can provide a more complete narrative, and negate the fallible memory and recounting, or personal agendas, of participants, witnesses, victims, etc. #BlackLivesMatter and the ongoing fight for social justice in the U.S. owes a lot to video of shootings of black men by police.

But while most people don’t shy away from viewing pictures online (troublesome scenarios aside), video is less of a guaranteed hit.

Sure, issues of bandwidth and tech can be a consideration (Flash or Silverlight anyone?) but appreciation of video has demographic limits. If I see an interesting news article and it links to a page that’s just a video, or there’s very little text accompanying it, I’m more likely to close the tab.

Many other people, on the other hand, would happily watch even a 10-minute video rather than read 2,000 words online. Also, are we talking a feel-good news story? Coverage of a terrorist bombing? Cats doing… cat stuff? All online video is not created equal. And ideally, though, we prefer video so concise it’s actually a picture, kind of. All hail the gif!

Video can also be an excellent and fresh way for companies to get their message across. Especially at this point where social media is no longer novel, and digital marketing is a pretty ubiquitous and expected part of companies’ overall marketing efforts. (Just stop asking your staff or agencies to “create a viral video.” Please.)

Interestingly, audio doesn’t hold quite the same position online. Admittedly, phone or laptop speakers don’t provide the most world-class listening experience, but why is that in general? Even when we want to send someone a song, or an interview that’s just two people sitting and talking, we’re more likely to grab or post the content from YouTube than SoundCloud or elsewhere, even if there’s not actually much to see.

The exception to this is podcasts, of course, which are enjoying resurgence, though those seem to be essentially on-demand radio for specifically targeted areas of interest, rather than just general media for consumption. Personally, I credit them with providing me with an education in politics and economics, among other things. Topics I wouldn’t normally seek out, but which have been made relevant and interesting through their storytelling.

I can’t wait to see where the language and landscape of media takes us next. Conveniently, Waterloo Region is a great place to get a front-row seat to what some of our startups are working on in that realm.

That said, whether it’s the ascendant media of McLuhan’s day, or a decade from now, it’s going to have a much harder and more competitive job keeping our eyeballs glued to it than have the products of a young German entrepreneur you might be familiar with, name of Gutenberg…

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.