Social Media: Some Consequences

McLuhan's tetrad and social media

Posted Apr 02, 2013

There is an ever-increasing variety of online social networking sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest seem to dominate at the moment, while many others have tried and failed, or are still at it. And who knows what is around the corner that will be the next big thing in online social networking? More importantly, how should we think about social networking and its role in our lives?

Most people have heard the line "The medium is the message." Unfortunately, the intent of this statement is often misunderstood. Marshall McLuhan was at the forefront of philosophical reflection on technology. Here, I'd like to apply a bit of his thought to social media.

For McLuhan, there are 4 ideas which help us evaluate the role and function of any technology in our lives.

1. It extends or magnifies something we already do. Social media magnifies our ability to communicate with others. This technology enables us to transcend the boundaries of time and space in ways that were not possible just 15 years ago. In many ways, it also magnifies how and how much we think about ourselves, as we craft an online social media persona and think about what to post, what not to post, and so on.

2. It eliminates something we used to do. It isn't clear to me that social media has done this. However, in many cases it has reduced the amount of time we spend in face-to-face interactions, sometimes quite drastically.

3. It retrieves something from the past. Social media allow us to communicate and connect with others in a way that resembles the past when people were less mobile. Many were born, lived, and died in the same town or at least the same general area. In today's more mobile society, social media can help us retrieve lifelong connections with people from our childhood and relatives who stayed behind or moved on. In the past, we might have sustained these relationships at a local restaurant or in our homes. Now, we often do this through the screen of a smartphone, computer, or tablet.

4. It can become a negative behavior with overuse. This is certainly the case with social media. We can get lost in our screens, or be overly obsessed with this aspect of life. And when this happens, we miss out on what is going on in our immediate environment, losing out on some of the goods of face-to-face interaction. We need this kind of real rather than virtual interaction.

Approaching social media through McLuhan's thought helps us to see some of the positive and some of the negative aspects of this technology. It is up to us to maximize the former, while minimizing the latter.