Saturday, September 19, 2009

What if Marshall McLuhan was alive and on Twitter?

Marshall's Diary Sept 19 2009

Dear Diary:

If anyone had really bothered to read any of my books and paid attention they'd know that so-called “social media” is (a) a disagreeable tautology and (b) my invention.

Just today I came across a new example of said social media, hideously described as a “new invention” (tautology!) and named, in typical twee fashion, Twitter. The chattering classes are now the twittering classes, and everyone is aflutter about how this is revolutionizing the way we communicate.

Reluctantly, I need to join the flock. I need to make it plain that if it wasn't for my genius, foresight and erudition we'd all still be licking stamps and twiddling the rabbit-ears on the tops of our television sets, or something like that. I'm the Global Village Guy, goddammit!

My start with Twitter was not auspicious. When I tried to register as “Marshall McLuhan” I discovered that a namesake had already taken my identity, complete with my photograph (not too bad, actually). The impostor has the gall to be quoting me as me (tautology?). I took this as a considerable affront, especially since some of the material wasn't exactly in context, if there is any context to be “in” on the Internet (Note to self: Is there a book in this idea? Maybe the OuterNet???).

I tried reaching the owners of Twitter to no avail (employees of Twitter are Twits, I presume, har-har). I later found out that when it comes to having an identity crisis I'm in very good company: also on Twitter is Albert Einstein (rambling), Charles Darwin (literally rambling, he seems to have restarted his journey on The Beagle), and even by good pal Marty Heidegger (who pretty much out-rambles anyone I know).

Anyway, after extensive clicking I discovered I was relegated to “MarshallMcLuhan2,” which is humiliating to say the very least. Now that I think about it, this Global Village thingy has a way of humbling you. All the world is within my reach and I feel as small as an ant.

But now to work. I need to regain myself. And most important, I have to set the record straight on why I nailed the whole social media thingy way back in 1960-something, before even The Beatles and when computers ran on rolls of paper just like my dear mother's Player Piano, and when newspapers actually made money. But I digress....

I thought a pithy first post might be this little zinger:

MarhsallMcLuhan2: In Tetrad form, the artifact is seen to be not neutral or passive, but an active logos or utterance of the human mind or body that transforms the user and his ground.

Captures the whole idea nicely I think. Not too obvious, straightforward or dare I say it, even intelligible to anyone who hasn't pondered my opus for some considerable time. Then this happened:

MarshallMcLuhan2: In Tetrad form, the artifact is seen to be not neutral or passive, but an active logos or utterance of the human mind or body that transforms...

Turns out, Twitter assumes we all have an attention span of the average newt and limits posts to a meager 140 characters. A Dickens novel has more than 140 characters! “Existential angst” has 16 characters alone!

Crap. Ah, to hell with it:

MarshallMcLuhan2: The medium is the message.


"When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity...So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change. But everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody. This is what's called the masked man. The masked man has no identity. He is so deeply involved in other people that he doesn't have any personal identity."
-- The real McLuhan, quoted in Forward Through The Rearview Mirror

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Social media, the Associated Press, and row boats

In the early 1800s most news came to America across the Atlantic aboard ships, and arrived weeks old. Old perhaps, but still valuable: news of wars, politics, and commerce commanded a price. Thus an enterprising newsman named Harry Blake, working for the Boston Courier, came up with a clever idea and began haunting the wharfs of Boston to scoop stories, eventually venturing out in a small boat to meet ships before they even berthed. Over time news organizations got competitive and began sending schooners as far as 200 miles out to sea to meet boats and get copies of newspapers and reports from sailors. By the late 1820s David Hale, who had recently taken over the failing New York-based Journal of Commerce, reinvented news gathering:

It will be a primary object to render the Journal a first rate commercial paper, worthy of the city. To this end an extensive correspondence will be maintained, the most ably conducted periodicals will be taken, and no pains nor expense will be spared to procure authentic reviews of the markets, prices current &c. It will be necessary to maintain a boat establishment for the collection of marine news; and this must be done at our individual cost, as the public and our establishment will be benefited by competition...

- Journal of Commerce, September 1, 1828

By setting out to sea Hale was able to gather information about European crop harvests, the prices of goods , the fortunes of nations, and a world of other information that could be traded on for profit. But he didn't stop there. In 1849 he pooled resources with several other newspapers and started running a boat and pony express network to quickly get news to New York from the inbound mail steamers that first docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was the birth of the Associated Press.

Fast forward to 2009. RavenPack is a small New York-based company that “provides dynamically tagged news feeds and analytics that meet the accuracy and low latency requirements of today’s markets.” Translation: RavenPack's software automatically sifts through news to very quickly decide what a story is about, and whether it is positive or negative. “Very quickly” in this context means processing hundreds of stories a few thousandth of a second after their publication. RavenPack sells the system to financial companies who use it to help make trading decisions. The company claims that in 90 percent of cases the information they provide can be used to profitably decide which stocks to buy, sell or hold.

I'd argue there's very little difference between Harry Blake rowing across the Boston harbor and RavenPack racing through terabytes of data: they are both in pursuit of news, and they both understand the value of getting the scoop. From a strict news perspective, all that has changed is the technology, velocity and volume.

And when we think of social media, we should see it for what it is – an improvement over a row boat. Social media is just a new means of delivery.