The Medium is Still the Message

A few months ago, I conducted a social networking experiment. To be honest, it did not really start out as an experiment; it just ended up as one.

The experiment went as follows. I placed on my Facebook page a link to a study I saw regarding new ways to measure risk. (Have I lost you yet?) As you might expect, I got zero replies from my Facebook friends.

Next, I posted a link to the Web site of an economist I like who did some very cool work. (Still there?) Not one person wrote on my wall.

Then, I put up a link to another study I found fascinating. The response was equally quiet.

Finally, to rouse my friends from the stupor into which I had sent them, I placed a note on my page that said, “Drove down the Pacific Coast Highway with the top down in the middle of winter. Isn’t California great?”

I got 12 replies and ended the experiment.

What was really interesting about my experience was that the postings I put on my Facebook page would normally be of interest to the nerdy group I hang out with in cyberspace. They like the topics in my postings, and they are interested in the work I was alerting them to. Not only that, but the people who have friended me electronically read and write blogs on the same topics as were discussed in these links. They just do not like to do it on Facebook.

The medium is still the message.

We have known for a very long time that different media produce different results in people’s minds. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan, the grandfather of media studies, said that the black and white of print leads to a linear, logical way of thinking that tends to make people see the world in terms of, well, black and white.

TV is different, he said. It is cooler, fuzzier, less logical, and it portrays a world that is more nuanced, with shades of gray.

Much more recently, Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has shown that online technologies influence not only the way children think, but also the way they see themselves.

And why not? When you are playing World of Warcraft with 11 million of your closest friends, your state of mind has to be different from the person one seat over from you at Starbucks who is playing a hand of online bridge.

The kind of segmentation these new technologies make possible is far different from the kind developed by yesterday’s “Mad Men,” who were mostly concerned with people’s incomes and spending habits. That view of the market still carries weight even though social media produces shadings that are much more interesting.

Whereas I often feel I can not look at LinkedIn unless I am wearing a jacket and tie — it is the serious business Web site after all — what I learned from my experiment on Facebook was that it is inhabited by the denim-and-tee shirt crowd. (If you take that crowd, put them in the back seat of a taxi and tell them to post their musings on the Web, you have Twitter.) The point is, the people on these Web sites are the same; their mind-sets are not.

What all this means is that different social media allow marketers, employers, politicians, business leaders and managers to interact with people when their states of mind are most likely to produce the desired result.

What it also means is that the entire menu of media options needs to be looked at with sensitivity to its subtleties in order to make best use of its potential.

Too many pundits treat social media as if it were all the same. That is because they have not had the benefit of being snubbed by their Facebook friends. Even if the message is right, the medium might be wrong. These tools give a whole new meaning to the phrase “share of mind.”

Authors

  • Joel Kurtzman

    Former Editor-in-Chief, Korn Ferry Institute