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“The medium is the message”

We’ve all heard this, but what does it mean for our everyday work as marketers and content creators?

Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined this phrase. According to Wikipedia:

McLuhan proposes that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be the primary focus of study.

There are more mediums and messages than ever.

Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, newsletters, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, SNL’s Weekend Update, the New York Times, WSJ. Your neighbor Al.

The list goes on.

This confusing swirl of options means that the decision and pairing is more important than ever.

The Medium is the Message Examples

Studying shortform content like TikTok, Reels, and YouTube shorts is a perfect example of where the medium is dominating the message.

Users of short-form video content are looking for short, snackable videos that they can swipe through quickly. The interesting components of the medium are: mobile phone, shortform video, social network they’re viewing it on.

They are swiping through shortform video because that’s the mood they’re in and how they want to consume it. The content itself has to be interesting and entertaining, but what are the messages of all of these videos? It’s completely splintered and random. The medium is the message.

Or thing about this: what if a friend sent you a message via carrier pigeon that just said “hi”. That would be an insane demonstration of commitment by your friend to do this in 2024. That is an extreme version that’s really fun. You could add on the college banter and say “what about smoke signals hahaha”.

A third example, now that I’m rolling: Twitter really is a perfect example. 140 characters means that the medium is much like shorts, where we’re in that mode. With Twitter I would say that being a plain-text app, actually standardizes the medium when you’re using it, and helps you focus on the message. So it’s a bit more of a blend tilting more to the message than the medium, in contrast to TikTok or reels. With TikTok you are entertained, and the message of the billionaires on the yacht with models is a bit obscure.

Sometimes the Medium Dominates

The audio app Clubhouse is the perfect example of the medium taking precedence over the message. At the peak point of the hype cycle, we cared about the novelty of it being social audio with rooms, more so than we cared about any one room at the moment.

On Twitter, the medium dominates because we want to go to Twitter for a quick snack of content and ideas and interact with the people on there. It’s not any one message that is the draw, but the whole sea of them. If 25% of the people you follow were replaced by another person similar to them, your overall Twitter experience might change, but it’s not going to be 25% worse, perhaps just 5%.

Sometimes the Content Dominates

The ideas from Tim Ferris started with his book, The 4-Hour Workweek.

Then they continued with his blog. Then his email series. Then his podcast.

In this example, the content and the message of the Tim Ferris persona is the dominant element. The distribution channels for his idea get it out there, but there are people who will spend big money to go to a private event just to meet the content creator himself, showing the dominance of the content here.

The Reality is Often a Blend of Both

I’m not one to intellectually challenge Marshall McLuhan, but both the medium and the message need to be considered when trying to achieve specific goals with messaging.

You wouldn’t Tweet a book, or would you?

Joe Robison

Founder & Consultant
Joe Robison is the founder of Green Flag Digital. He founded the agency in 2015 and has been heads-down scaling content marketing and SEO services for clients ever since. He is an occasional surfer, fledgling yogi, and sucker for organized travel tours.
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