The Medium Really is the Message in our Current Digital Media Age
As you consider how involved your medical practice or small business should be in the world of social media and digital communication, it is important to understand the context of this information revolution and its importance. These are exciting times for sure in the way humans share information and interact with each other. While it is true that the all-consuming world of smartphones, social media, texting, and mobile communication can be overwhelming and even detrimental at times, there are important factors that all small businesses should be aware. Understanding a little of the history and prevalence of digital media in our culture will enable your business or practice to manage and optimize its presence in the online world.
How did we get here?
There is no disputing the fact that the digital communication revolution has saturated US society and norms, and has in fact reached virtually every area of the world. This digital revolution has changed the ways people, businesses, organizations, and groups share information and interact with one another. One thing that cannot be argued is that these are exciting times!
We currently find ourselves in the middle of one of only six information revolutions that have taken place over thousands of years, as identified by scholar Irving Fang. These include:
- the move from a pre-literate to a literate society (Greece, eighth century B.C.), which had great implications regarding writings that could now store knowledge and removing the requirement of memorization.
- the development of the print revolution (beginning in 15th century Europe), including the importation of paper from China as well as the Gutenberg printing press. This allowed information to spread across vast groups of people from all social classes.
- the mass media revolution in western Europe and the eastern United States during the mid-1800s combined advances in printing and paper methodologies. This also coincided with the inventions of the telegraph and photography. Regularly printed publications such as newspapers and magazines were now available to the average person, bringing news and information from all corners of the world. The availability of public schools and libraries spread exponentially, making literacy a norm for the majority of people.
- the fourth information revolution, entertainment, also began in the United States and Europe, this time in the late 19th century. Included in this revolution were technologies such as motion pictures, stored sound, and cameras affordable to the general public, leading to an insatiable desire by the masses to be entertained through movie theaters, radio, and improved printing methods. This also established a new socialization that included going out to a theater or related venue to be entertained.
- the communication toolshed home, taking place in the middle of the 20th century, bringing information gathering and entertainment directly into the home. This involved radio and then television, broadcasting systems, advances in audio and video recordings, and inexpensive and accessible postal systems.
- finally, we find ourselves right now in the middle of the information highway revolution, including vast advances in computer, Internet, satellite, telephone, broadcasting, online social networks, visual, and mobile technologies. It is easy to see how widespread and impactful the diffusion of this digital technology is in our world today.
Digital Media’s Impact Why does this brief communication history lesson matter? It is important to understand the immensely powerful and impactful nature of digital media in so many aspects of our personal and professional lives. This is not a fad, nor is it just a craze for teenagers and millennials. These digital communication mediums have so powerfully interjected themselves into people’s lives that it is argued that many have become performers or characters in their own version of a reality television series or made-for-tv movie (Gabler, 2011). The lives of many who have adopted these communication mediums and their content seem to have become a piece of an interesting narrative that is part of the fabric of the entertainment machine or world in which they need to a part to avoid feeling invisible or even non-existent. As many scholars have noted, the more recent digital media and their applications haves connected people within communities and across cultures in new and unprecedented ways, sometimes greatly changing the way they think, behave, and view the world.
In addition, it is important to note that social media is not a recent fad, but something that has been pervasive since the early 2000s (and can be argued that it goes back to the mid 1800s with the telegraph and Morse code).
- the network “Six Degrees” is widely recognized as the first major social website, enveloping over 1 million members during their heyday between 1997 and 2001.
- in 1999, LiveJournal allowed users to post on their lives and keep online friends updated. Friendster followed in 2002 and was one of the more prominent early social media sites. Interestingly, the founders of Friendster rejected a $30 million offer from Google in 2003 – to this day this is still considered one of the major mistakes in social media history.
- LinkedIn began in 2003 and continues as a leading portal for users to post resume-type material. Within one year of their launch, LinkedIn was able to reach 1 million members (they now have over 500 million users).
- the behemoth of social networks, Facebook, began in 2004 as a network only for students at Harvard University (the school attended at the time by founder Mark Zuckerberg). The platform quickly expanded beyond college students, it has become a dominant communication vehicle in today’s world. Today, just 14 years after its founding, Facebook boasts over 2.2 billion users worldwide.
- the online social world continues to evolve . . . Twitter was launched in 2006. Currently, over 500 million Tweets are sent every days, and specific Tweets have powerful global implications when originating from places of great power (like the White House!). SnapChat came about in 2011 and has revolutionized social interaction patterns of millions of mostly younger users.
- 2018 has led to the mass use of live video feeds through social networks, as well as virtual reality and 360-degree video content. In addition, “fake news and social media’s role in this phenomenon led to questions and changes in the ways networks manage users and information.
Digital communication will only continue to grow in its predominance in the ways people and organizations share information and messages in our society. It has long been understood that the information you share is only part of an effective communication process – the medium you choose to send out your message is equally if not more important. Marshall McLuhan, a renowned communication scholar, wrote in 1964, “The medium is the message.” Written decades prior to the social media craze, McLuhan’s words are never more meaningful than now. Your messages clearly are influenced and impacted by the medium in which they are shared with your publics and audiences.
Howard, P. N., & Hussain, M. M. (2011). The role of digital media. Journal of democracy, 22(3), 35-48.
McLuhan, M. (2004). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man; Marshall McLuhan. TPB.
McMullen, T. (2013, August 22). The History of Social Media [INFOGRAPHIC]. Retrieved from https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/the-history-of-social-media-infographic/463897/