It took a lot of digging into what I would consider a horribly drafted University of Toronto document on “The Medium is the Message,” the famous quote by Marshall McLuhan. I wanted to get to the point; the writer obviously did not.
Let’s get to the point here.
Not Your Father’s “Message”
The problem here is that McLuhan wasn’t using the word message in any conventional way whatsoever. For non journalism grads, this is a problem.
To the untrained eye, a message is something carried by horse by a courier to a different kingdom by a messenger. A message is a singular enclosure of content. A message is indistinguishable from its content – but distinguishing from the content in media is exactly what McLuhan aimed to do.
Feel free to skim or read more deeply but I’ll resume after the quote below:
McLuhan tells us that a “message” is, “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that a new invention or innovation “introduces into human affairs.” Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. Thus, the message of theatrical production is not the musical or the play being produced, but perhaps the change in tourism that the production may encourage. In the case of a specific theatrical production, its message may be a change in attitude or action on the part of the audience that results from the medium of the play itself, which is quite distinct from the medium of theatrical production in general. Similarly, the message of a newscast are not the news stories themselves, but a change in the public attitude towards crime, or the creation of a climate of fear. A McLuhan message always tells us to look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.
There is also a grammatical issue but, at heart, the medium isn’t the content of the message either, so this is a message seemingly without content; a contradiction in terms. Thus, it would not be correct vis a vis the message here to write, “The message itself is the medium,” for that cannot be true.
The Medium Is The Story
A.k.a.: The Medium Is The Narrative
Put differently, the medium is not the content of the message; it is the subject of the story.
If a messenger (or envoy) carries a message across national borders and delivers it to a different nation’s king, the fact he delivered a message is not itself the message; it is the story. It is an important story, for the very act itself sends a different message, even though it is not a message itself.
Likewise, the change in tourism that a theatrical production may encourage might be the real story behind a play, but it is not the message of the play in any sense that I would consider as an artist (let alone a wordsmith/ writer/ thinker).
Using Plain Language Properly
It’s really important to use plain language as much as possible, and to use it well. Making media studies something that requires learning whole new word definitions to replace perfectly good ones already used in the English language adequately is well… annoying.
As a translator, I was constantly looking for the best way to convey a message in my native English language. I could understand that message in its native Japanese or French perfectly, but that would avail me nothing if I could not share that message with others in English.
Using “message” like this is essentially a trap. It’s encouraging misunderstanding by banging a word into a situation it was never intended to account for.
I’ll be happy to discuss the story of a media event, or reflect upon the narrative that presents itself, but these are not really messages in the traditional sense. Messages are their children, but they are stories and narratives.
Let us recognize them as such and deal with them without courting confusion.