More than ever, the medium is the message

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At the time, he was talking about the fast advent of TV. But if you want to see the truth of his statement in action, you’re already in the right place: online.

  • A message in Twitter is 140 characters long.
  • A message on is, well, 12 seconds long.
  • You get about 400 characters to express your thoughts on Facebook.
  • LinkedIn is businesslike; you can’t get as lost as you can on Facebook, and the variety of activities in more limited.
  • Squidoo lets you type in original content, but it’s really about packaging other content — yours or somebody else’s — under a single thematic umbrella.
  • A blog is unlimited, but is accepted as “good” only if it gets updated frequently.

There are at least dozens more kinds of electronic media where you can place your messages. I know people who market themselves online using all of the above media and more.  But if you want to get people to pay attention to what you’re writing, you can’t just cut and paste your blog post onto Facebook and Twitter and Squidoo, etc.

In some cases, there are limitations such Twitter’s infamous 140-character limit. In all, there is the simple and unarguable feedback from the market. If you do it right, people will pay attention. If you do it wrong, they won’t.

Doing it right means integrating strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities of the medium into whatever it is that you’re writing, videotaping, podcasting, etc. If you want to give a lecture, don’t bother putting it on YouTube unless you have strong visuals to go with it. And don’t simply post the transcript of your lecture as a blog if you want anyone to say anything nice about it.

Today, as newspapers face their toughest economic environment ever, they’re trying to figure out how to get people to pay for content online. When I ask people about this, the usual response is that they aren’t sure they’d find an electronic newspaper to be worth reading, let alone paying for.

But they’re imposing their view of newspapers as a print medium on the coming reality of newspapers online.

To be sure, some publishers will make a mess of it. They’ll try to do exactly what they’re doing now — but without the paper costs. And they’ll fail.

Others will figure it out. The paper of the future may provide headlines to your cellphone in the morning, with updates all day. On a Smartphone, the headlines may link to the full story. You may have the choice whether you want to get one section (world news, for instance) in-depth, and another (perhaps sports) on only a cursory basis. The website might offer configuration and search tools, letting you scan for all articles containing a specific keyword, or filter out stories from the opposite side of town. It could give you Tweets as news breaks, video clips of big events, or full context about ongoing, longterm stories. It may led you contribute news in the form of short video and photos. You might be able to read it on a Kindle, on screen or hear it through your ipod. And somewhere in there, they’ll figure out how to not only collect a critical mass of paid subscribers, they’ll also figure out how to serve advertisers.

In other words, newspapers will survive. But they won’t look like they do today, and they won’t DO what they do today either, because they’ll come to us not just through the same old medium, but through a Dagwood sandwich of media.

So McLuhan’s old saw really is more important than ever. When he wrote it, he was dealing with print, TV and radio. Today, because the medium is the message, it means the message changes many times a day depending on where you happen to be when you choose to accept it.


About the Author:

Bob Rosenbaum is founder and principal of The MarketFarm, a content-oriented strategic communications firm.

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