As figures for online news consumption soar, and newspaper circulations dwindle, I consider the idea that social media acted as the catalyst to get the masses involved with reading online news.
In 1964 there was a growing fear in the western world. The atom bomb? L.S.D? JFK? Maybe; but in particular, perhaps echoed in the other suggestions, there was an anxiety about machines taking over and making humans redundant, at least in employment terms, although, a night spent watching 1960’s movies would suggest unemployment was the least of their worries.
The relevance of Marshall McLuhan’s well-worn enigmatic paradox of smart-arsery is arguably (in the sense that I will put the argument to anyone that will listen) more poignant now than it ever was in the days of free-love. The medium is the message, just like Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ has flattered many a media studies student, in the name of deceit; but I feel it goes a long way to describing the current state we find ourselves in.
It is the train journey that is important here, not the destination. Just like the automation McLuhan and his peers feared, could have ‘turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs’ it is not the social media platform itself, but the way humans use it. To use McLuhan’s idea; the machines, or the media or technology, are the extensions of man. That is; they only have meaning when they are understood as part of the human desire to give and receive messages – to communicate.
Social media has altered our relation with one another and to ourselves. It has changed the velocity, dynamics and scale of human interactions; and that is its message. ‘For the message of any medium is the change in scale or pace or pattern it introduces into human affairs.’ Just like McLuhan’s railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheels into human society, yet managed to accelerate and enlarge the scale of previous human functions and, in turn create new kinds of cities for people to live and work in; social media has not introduced anything new into human society.
Social media did not introduce digital communication, but changed the pace and scale of human interaction, and as such, quite independently of what it was created to do, dissolved the need for printed information, and in turn, lubricated the demise of the traditional press.
I know that online news was around before the rise of social media, and that newspaper circulations were dropping too; but it was when the content started to fit around the way humans were consuming information that it really took off. Sharing news through Twitter and Facebook has become easy to do – and we do it, a lot.
It’s as if the legitimacy of the press has been revitalised through the new ways we share and use it. Alistair Campbell wrote this last week:
“Here is the thing. People do not trust politicians like they used to. They don’t trust the media to tell the truth like they used to. They don’t trust banks or brands. So who do we trust? We trust each other.”
And that is my point. If we all value each others’ opinion more than the media, then the stories from the media will gain cultural value as they pass through us, as conduits for the traditional news story.
Is second hand news more valuable to us than stories direct from the news conglomerates?
Maybe, we trust each other to act as filters to hold back anything biased or challenging to our view of the world.
Lets take The Sun. As I write this the latest ABC figures show that, although their daily circulation remains at a healthy 2.2 million, its year-on-year change is down 13% compared to the online figure of +16%; The Guardian has almost 83 million monthly browsers, a 37% rise year-on-year. The Daily Mail‘s circulation is 1,787,577, down7.5%, where the Mail online attracts an average of 8.2 million daily browsers at a +47% year-on-year change; I could go on.
We do find it humorous to think of our silly descendants; so scared of technology and ignorant of change that they thought machines would take over their jobs. But maybe we should learn to take heed.
McLuhan warned us that it was the medium that was the message. He told us that the message was how a medium affects humans, and social media has affected the ways we choose to consume news. Social media has dissolved traditional journalism – machines have taken over after all!