Marshall McCluhan came up with this ditty in the 60s, which means the form that a communication comes in (e.g., movies), not just the content of the communication, is worth focusing on if we are trying to find the message of the communication. I was thinking about this theory, and trying to apply it to the very interesting event which happened last month when Jeff Bezos used Medium to announce to the world that he was going to fight the blackmail attempt being made on him by the National Enquirer people. The message he wanted to send — “I will fight this infamy” — was according to McCluhan accompanied by another hidden message of the form of the blog community called, ironically, Medium.
When it comes to blogs, before Medium, the hidden message contained in all blogs on the internet was indicative of a major structural change that it took a while for us to notice — the death of print media is part of that structural change. Perhaps the death of journalism itself?
Medium’s paywall attempts to create a new “form” for bloggers. It is a transitional space from the “free” blogosphere of the early 2000s to a monetizable space where a new kind of journalism will be born.
But as a transitional phase, the blogs on Medium still contain the message of the old blogosphere. Part of that message is that blogs are a vanity project (the author is vain?). That blogs are free and perhaps worthless (the author is worthless?). That blogs are disposable, forgettable, and a waste of time, unless, miracle of miracles, they go viral (the author is potentially a lottery winner but it’s not likely?). Or unless one of the brick and mortar industries notices the blog and transforms it into the brick and mortar economy (The Martian?).
The blog is a place of hope. Ego. Self-indulgence. Freedom?
But with every blog that is written, a certain message is transmitted, especially here on Medium, that is at once Utopian (this will be a great community for writers and readers) and Dystopian (I have used up my “follows” for the day, some big brother has blocked me, some unseen hand has not promoted my blog, some invisible force is stopping me from taking off, some governor has governed me.).
How this plays out will undoubtedly track the next phase of the tech revolution. Will Medium survive the Virtual Revolution? AR? AI? The next Crash? The War Against Billionaires? The “who-knows?”
Some have written that the Utopian hope of the nascent Medium has given way to the reality that it will be not much more than a syndication market for the previous media establishment (The Atlantic etc?).
Is there anybody out there reading this, I wonder?
That is the hidden message of all blogs. That the author, even if she has many followers, is never sure if she will get readers for a given piece. This is what is called phatic communication. That is a linguistic term that refers to the type of communication that tests if communication is taking place, as in, saying hello, making smalltalk, or when you are testing the mic and you say, “testing one, two, three.”
Every blog on Medium still has the quality of a phatic communication.
Obviously, that is a very early phase of communication. After all, the “real” communication takes place after the speaker has determined that yes the mic is working. And he proceeds.
We still don’t know if the mic is working. That’s exciting. But it’s also, well, early days.
That’s why Jeff Bezos using Medium to announce the world the attempted blackmail by the Enquirer was one of the most exciting moments in Medium history. That was not “phatic” communication. Mr. Bezos spoke to the entire world through Medium. And the entire world, including the rest of the media, heard loud and clear.
If and when Medium becomes bigger, as big as the world itself, the communication for many more of its writers will move rapidly beyond this phatic phase and will become perhaps more substantial.
But it will never be as hopeful as it is now.
Brimming with optimism, this is my way of checking the mic, introducing myself, letting you know who I am, and wondering, quite hopefully, if you are out there listening. And wondering how you might respond.