There’s a famous phrase from Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan that gets a regular workout in media columns. “The medium is the message” has been quoted so many times that using it is almost a cliché. People attempt to explain and interpret this phrase in a number of different ways.
The phrase even has its own Wikipedia article that contains the extraordinary phrase: “McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
But looking past the florid writing style and larceny metaphors for one moment, McLuhan’s point that while we get distracted by content, we can miss the changes and developments that are instigated by the medium itself.
And this was never more accurate than when applied to mobile. We’ve had mobile handsets in our pockets for 30 years, and in that time we’ve been so absorbed with what content we could push onto our handsets, it’s only relatively recently that people have started to pay attention to the multi-screen world we now find ourselves in.
McLuhan first used his famous phrase back in 1964, and here we are, almost 50 years later, using our mobiles to consume and experience more media than ever before. We now spend vast amounts of time on the mobile internet, playing games, streaming media and using apps. The initial discussions about the impact ofmobile screens on more traditional media, such as TV, seem to have been put to bed. It turns out that viewers didn’t swap one screen for another, they just looked at more of them; often simultaneously.
Traditional publishing models that have for so long relied on one-way advertising are in a state of flux as the balance of power shifts towards the consumer. Audiences are loyal to talent or content but aren’t loyal to channel. Radio drama fans can listen to The Archers on their mobile and kids can stream Horrible Histories on their tablets.
In the age of multiple screens, advertisers and brands will have to become the talent as the death-knell sounds for channel-centric marketing.
Audiences in the new online sales environments, often driven there by social media, increasingly reject the homogenisation of experiences through moving images in favour of media they can invent, make their own and share on their own terms. Through ownership of extraordinarily powerful and easy-to-use mobile devices, they no longer wish to be passive voyeurs and demand to be the subjects of their own dramas, with their world in their pockets. ‘The age of mobile’ has undisputedly arrived and it’s evolving by the minute.
McLuhan, in his posthumously published Laws of Media, describes the effects on society of any (usually new) medium, and frames four questions that should be asked of it: What does the medium enhance? What does the medium make obsolete? What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?
As we enter the next phase of our online development, we can apply McLuhan’s questions to mobile. If we accept mobile to mean all portable screens, then we get the following responses: Mobile enhances connectivity, real-time interaction and personalised user experiences. It renders the microsite andtraditional data capture obsolete. It has revitalised the editorial print industry, albeit in digital format, and when pushed to extremes the mobile channel becomes the ultimate customisable consumption channel. A hyper-individual, socially powered channel where we can hunt down our own content, reinvent it, reformat it and republish it.
Paps Shaikh is commercial director of SAY Media.