Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

The Medium Is the Message

For those who think technology is merely a tool: you’re being fooled.

The medium is the message.
Marshall McLuhan

Medium is the Message (Telephone)

Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

Every time you read a newspaper, attend a church service, or go to a business meeting, you are not only absorbing a message; you are absorbing the medium.

In other words, how you say something is as important as what you say. And how you receive a message is as important as the message itself. If you are not aware of this, you are in big, big trouble. (We all are.)

The path we’re on

Western society is approaching an interesting crossroads. We have more information, more data, and more technology than ever before. And we are still very, very stupid.

We have billions of gigabytes of valuable content; yet, we have little experience or wisdom in how to wield such resources. We’re bound to screw something up. In fact, we already have.

We may soon find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic, Terminator-esque reality, in which the tools we built to use are, in fact, using us. And if you think I’m being over-dramatic, suspend judgment for a moment and be honest:

These powerful communication tools may not have super-intelligent cyber-brains hell-bent on destroying the world (yet), but can we honestly say that they are neutral, that they will not change how we live our lives, how we value relationships? Haven’t they already?

How much time do you spend using the Internet? How about checking your phone or email? It’s more than you think.

How to tell if you’re addicted to technology

Do an experiment and hide your phone for the weekend. Shut your laptop down. Did you miss it? Did you start to get an “itch,” like an addict going into withdrawal?

I’ve been amazed at how dependent I am on these soulless machines. Since I use technology all-day-every-day, I don’t even notice it. But whenever I am away from my computer or iPhone for several hours, I start to panic. I worry and wonder: What did I miss?

The reason I rely so heavily on these tools? Communication. I want to connect to other people — for the sake of work and building personal relationships. Ironically, I’ve often felt enslaved to the very tools I thought I was mastering.

How do I know this?

  • Because I find it hard to read a book. After a few pages, I’m ready to switch to something else. The instant-access of the Internet has programmed me to hop from one media source to the next without ever paying full attention.
  • Because I am a terrible listener. If I’m having a conversation with someone for more than a few minutes, I find my eyes and mind wandering. I get bored. I want to move on to the next task, the next conversation. Again, I’m thinking: What am I missing?
  • Because I am more concerned about people online than offline. When my wife and I have people over for dinner, I inevitably find myself wanting to check email or Twitter. While I love forming relationships on the web, I’ve found that an unfortunate byproduct is  it has led me to push away people in my own neighborhood.

I am not proud of any of this. The fact that this is so widespread in our culture is embarrassing.

What’s really at stake

The communication advancements of the past hundred years — not just the Internet; but the telephone, radio, and camera (both still and video) — have drastically changed the way communities are shaped and how people interact.

While I’m not ready to quit the Internet or stop using my cell phone, I am sure of one thing: I have got to get a grip on these tools. Otherwise, they will rule my life — in subtle, inconspicuous ways, undermining the purposes for which I use them: to build relationships.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I want to make a difference. In the world, yes. But also in my family and home town. Maybe you do, too. If so, let me suggest a challenge to the both of us: If the tools we’re using are undermining the goals for which we’re using them, let’s consider changing tools. Or at very least, be more intentional about how we use them.

A lot is at stake here, even the integrity of the messages we so earnestly believe in. So let’s not for one second believe that the medium doesn’t matter, that we should carelessly employ any technology available for the sake of broadcasting a message.

That is the last thing we must do.

What do you think? Is the medium neutral, or does it affect the message? How is technology changing the way we interact, relationally? Share in the comments.

If this resonated with you, you may enjoy this book and/or this one. (Affiliate links)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • I’m a technology addict…I was talking to my wife about this just last night. It’s actually embarrassing to admit this, but they say knowing you have a problem is the first step to recovery..

    Well I may be exaggerating a tad, but you’re spot on here with the need to a get a grip on these tools before they enslave us and undermine our art. 

    I would say the medium is neutral, and it’s how we use the medium that matters. We can be so stuck on just one way, like you’re describing here, and miss out on using even better mediums that may enhance our message (like actually meeting people in person, more public speaking, etc..).

    • Don, I actually disagree. This is the type of thinking that has led to the slippery slope of misusing tools and allowing technology to depersonalize our lives and communication. Book recommendation: Flickering Pixels.

      • Interesting. So perhaps I’m missing something here. So explain to me why medium is not neutral. Are you saying using multiple mediums to spread our message leads to further depersonalization?

        • Every medium carries with it its own attributes and characteristics that attach itself to the message.
          Don, are you telling me that you don’t experience the content of a book differently, depending on whether you read it in hardcover, on the computer, or a Kindle?
          Why, then, did you bother with designing your blog (rather nicely, I might add)?
          To give you an extreme example, what do we think of preachers who teach purity and then find out they’ve been given to all kinds of secret moral failure? If they are merely the medium for the message, what does it matter?
          Another example would be this: You’re promoting the importance of family values and personal relationships through a television ad or on a video screen in front of thousands (or millions). Something about that medium seems to undermine the message.

          • Hmm. I read some quotes from Flickering Pixels and believe I was looking at the word medium in the wrong light. These examples helped clarify it for me as well. 

            I agree, every medium we use does influence communication. We are just as responsible for the medium we use as we are the words we use. Perception is critical, I touched upon that in a recent post, and the medium we choose does indeed affect that. 

            Most come to the internet with a bias toward exhibitionism, to show off. No real intimacy is created or intended. As you have said in past, friendship without it costing something isn’t really friendship. Seth Godin calls our social media followers “friendlies.”

            We are really building a tribe of friendlies, and superficial relationships. 

            Thanks for helping me understand this, Jeff!

  • I think most people miss the point. We confuse our follow count with bridging the gaps of relationships when our follower count is actually supposed to bridge gap of building relationahips. The ironic twist in all this is that people choose to air their dirty laundry all over Facebook thinking that that is making us closer to other people when we’ve never made attempt to actually connect with our followers to begin with. Make sense?

    But, if we embrace the medium for what it is, a huge tool in introducing community so that people have chance to engage in community, then it becomes our message.

  • This is a hard one for me. To make a difference both sides have to be available and willing to communicate and interact. The internet has given me the ability to find people who want that.  
    I was talking about blogging at the bus stop yesterday with a new mom and she asked about my blogs.  It was a very stimulating conversation about each others passions. But there was no time! We both went home to read each others blog because she had errands to run, and I had children to care for. 
    So even though I’m connecting In Real Life, the internet seems to be easier to communicate because distance doesn’t matter.

    • interesting, betsy — thanks for sharing one of the positives of this slippery slope called technology.

  • Wow! This is so true. My wife and I have very little time to spend together because of work and grad school, but somehow we tend to waste the precious time we have together pointlessly surfing the internet. I’ve been convicted of this lately, and this post is forcing me to stop avoiding the issue.

    Also interesting: Studies have shown that we are the most connected generation in history, but we are also the loneliest. Connecting online is great, but people need real people in their lives!

    • i am in the same boat and learning to break this addiction.

  • Mbetters

    This is extremely true.  Each generation will have worse and worse attention deficit because of technology.  The digitalized relationship has (perhaps) forever dethroned the face-to-face relationship.  More and more, I’m realizing this in myself- addicted to the technology that surrounds me.  And in others- my friends and family seem to rely as heavily on the Internet and cell phones, etc., as I do.

    It would seem that the medium is sending its own messages, regardless of what we put into it.  Wether these messages are good or bad may simply be up to the receiver.  How are we interpreting the Internet?  It’s starting to seem like more of a way of life than a mere tool.  Nice thoughts here, Jeff.

    • sad that i had to discipline myself to read this comment. at first, i only scanned it.
      i like what you said about the medium sending its own messages. how true. reminds me of iRobot.

    • I disagree with this statement about attention deficit getting worse. I think we’ll experience more “nichefication.” That’s a made up word, but it describes where the media is going, in my opinion. RSS readers and the like allow us to read only the news that we are interested in reading, instead of watching the nightly news, which is all just doom and gloom anyway.   What got ratings before isn’t getting ratings anymore and the way we consume media is changing by the minute. I think that nichefication will lead to people being experts in very small niches of information and industry.  We might not be as well rounded or informed as we are now, and I wont comment on whether that’s better or worse.  Where i do agree with you is in the addiction. Some people might find it harder to unplug, or worse, to distinguish between what is real news and what is just media hype.

  • Last Friday night, my wife and I went on a date for the first time in ages. (It’s hard to do when you have 2 little ones.) The sad thing is, at one point, we were both buried in our iPhones. We laughed, and put them away and enjoyed the rest of our meal, although I brought it back out to take a picture of our sushi.

  • I don’t have an i-phone…or a “smart” phone…I could if I wanted to but i don’t want to…i want constantly wanting to check my phone for facebook status or comments or whatever…

    Great post Jeff…

  • The dude was a genius before his time. Not sure if you allow links in comments, but there are a few youtube videos about McLuhan that are prophetic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgv72SRHdUI&feature=related; and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeDnPP6ntic&feature=related

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone like McLuhan or Chomsky moderated presidential debates and not some makeup wearing wannabe actor?

    • just finding out about mcluhan, but loving him. that would be something.

  • I think you’re spot on, Jeff.  

    I noticed that “itch” in myself a lot, especially during the time when I was trying to get blog traffic and tweet particularly retweet-worthy material (about a year ago).  I came to realization that I was doing these things to get noticed and my at-home life was being consumed by staying tuned in to what people were talking about…and hoping it was about me (or hoping that I could at least get some attention by talking about it, too).

    So I slowly began to allow myself the freedom to not do those things.  I hardly blog anymore.  I rarely tweet.  It was a struggle at first.  I felt like I was giving up on a God-given dream of making an impact for the Kingdom as a Christian leader and thinker.  

    And then I came to realize that it was really my dream more than God’s.  I realized how my life was slowly eroding the kind of person I actually wanted to be.  The kind who didn’t chase after fame or fortune, but did all I could to be faithful in my own context.

    These days, unless I’m working, I rarely open my laptop at home.  I’ve learned to be content to not matter to anyone else but the ones whose opinions matter most.    I get to spend uninterrupted time with my wife and son; content to let the Twitterverse do their thing and not feeling pressured to join in.

    I’d recommend it to anyone.  

    • love that, jesse. proud of you and excited for you.

  • Great post. As a cell-phone free , book reading, lover of face to face conversations: I still appreciate the truth here. I have often challenged myself/others in regards to this topic. Step out onto your front step and count the houses…do your neighbors know you?  Who verifies your online persona/magnificence ?
    You can be anyone online…but does your dog love you???
    Who gets your best part: You in all your ‘presence’ ? If your fingers stroke the keyboard more than they touch another human being: what has been lost? I see it as a failure to truly thrive. 
    Loving this conversation, need to go hang with my guys! {grin}..have you hugged someone today?

  • Mediums are neutral in terms of “good or bad.” But they absolutely affect us. We just have to be aware of what the costs and benefits are. Most of us would agree that the printing press was a good thing and that widespread literacy was a good thing. But there was a cost. Communal society and oral tradition took a huge hit.

    The same thing is happening in the digital age. So ultimately, we just need to be aware of what the technology and mediums are doing and decide if it is worth it. 

    • Exactly Ben. Get involved or don’t, speak your mind or don’t, plug in or unplug. No right or wrong, just right or wrong for you.

      • hmmm… somehow i think it’s more complicated than that. when entire societies adopt certain media en masse, there are major implications for how we live our lives.

  • This is a really good article, Jeff.  I noticed the same things you did this past March when I was at Yellowstone Park for about 5 days.  There was no cell service/wifi, etc in the park.  We actually had to use a landline to resolve an issue with our luggage.

    The first night of our stay, I realized I’d left my phone charger at the hotel in Billings.  Withing a day, my phone battery was drained.  It was silly because there was no coverage anyway, but I was antsy the whole trip.

    When we made our way through the Grand Tetons to Jackson Hole, I frantically searched for a phone accessories shop to try to replace the missing charger so I could charge a phone that I had no coverage for.

    I too, am addicted.  I’m noticing it more in my life now because I feel an acute sense of overwhelmingness (yep, made up that word myself. No worries, Shakespeare did it all the time).

    I feel like I have too much to do…too many e-mails, too many statuses to respond to, too many YT vids to catch up on, too many tweets to RT or respond to. I start experiencing shortness of breath if I think about walking away from FB or G+ for more than an hour or two. 

    This is all only a slight exaggeration, but your post has made me more aware of how I use these technologies (or more accurately, how they use me).  I need to make some changes. Thanks for conducting a pattern interrupt for me on this habit.

  • Jeff, just want to flag two things that might really help you and your readers. Just to be clear, I have no financial relationship with either. I’m just a happy reader & customer. 🙂

    (1) A superb book came out this spring from my friend Daniel Sieberg (tech correspondent at ABC and CBS — we were together at CNN for years). His book is The Digital Diet and it addresses (compassionately and practically) the issues youre talking about exactly, and lays out a super program for gaining control of one’s digital life. You might want to check it out: https://ow.ly/6Hwbs 

    (2) And if I might, let me recommend a truly terrific aid I use in what I call “attention management.” RescueTime will track every single thing you do on line and report it to you, down to the second. You’ll be amazed, trust me. Then its functionality called FocusTime will allow you to tell it precisely what sites/apps, etc. to block for exactly the amount of time you’d like. For example, I can close Twitter but keep my online Merriam-Webster open when doing some writing — for 14 minutes or 2 hours, any amount of time I choose. Total control. It’s a marvelous system. It’s free at its basic levels and only about $8/month with FocusTime. And you can try it, full-out — including FocusTime — completely free with my referral link: https://ow.ly/6Hwuj , no obligation. Some great guys are on the team there, currently mounting a special new varsity RescueTime program for college folks who desperately need to focus.

    Hope these things help. In fact, let me add one of my own favorite McLuhanisms, it reveals a lot about the compassion the guy brought to the table:

    “All media work us over completely. They are so
    pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic,
    psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no
    part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”

    So, hey, you’re not wrong, you’re right. Managing our media is our privilege and our dire challenge. 🙂

  • Excellent thoughts here, Jeff. This isn’t something we should just take into consideration. This is something we need to be intentional about changing. I’m certain most people who use the Internet or any other technology come across the same issues.

    The problem with technology is that it’s so easy—it makes us lazy. We’re too lazy to visit someone or make the effort to have people over because it’s much easier to just engage online. That’s great for across the miles, but for local friends? I think technology robs us in many ways {by our own allowance}.

    It has it’s place, as long as we keep it there.

  • I have found that technology can help enhance relationships. For instance, when people I know in person also post on Facebook, the next time I see them I can have a more in-depth conversation with them about something they are experiencing. This has especially been helpful in taking the relationship deeper. We don’t have to stay at the surface level as much. This is best done with people who don’t post superficial posts on Facebook. 

    The thing I see is that I can see more of the behind-the-scenes of a person’s life. Then I can decide whether to build the in-person relationship to a deeper level.

    The other thing I do with social media is to stop right then and there and pray for someone. Several of my friends do this for each other. 

    The medium is the message, but all media can be used better. We have to stop using it mindlessly. 

    Your problem with reading could be you are just not really interested in what you are reading. I read a lot more now that I have a Kindle. However, some books are just bad. I struggle completing those. The ones that are well-written, however, are easy to read the whole thing in one sitting.

    I don’t have a cell phone at all, because the only time I got calls was when I was driving. I may go back to having one later when we finish paying for our daughter’s college, but I prefer talking with someone in person now. 

  • The internet has allowed us to make a difference or spread a message in record speed, so therefore, it becomes the first choice for communicating.  Faster saves time and we all complain about not having enough time.

    I just hope it doesn’t make our future generation socially stupid, as they become a wiz at composing impressive text online and are speechless and awkward in person. 

    I spoke to someone on the phone the other day that I’ve never met in person and just hearing someones voice makes you instantly feel more connected to that person.

    Stronger connections make bigger impacts.  I hope people don’t forget that.

  • Thanks for this Jeff.  I have been thinking about this a lot lately.  Wrestling with how to be balanced with my time in the real world of the community I live in and with the on-line community.  The immediate positive feedback I get by blogging keeps me wanting to stay there.  Sometimes the relationships we cultivate face to face aren’t always that rewarding. 

  • I firmly believe the medium is just as much a part of the message as the actual content. It’s why I encourage my students and friends NOT to have a serious conversation through text. Or FB chat. You miss a lot in way of tone and body language, and the content ends up being distorted because of the medium. I know I’ve read frustration into a text or email that wasn’t there. It’s just how technology shapes the message.

    A few years back, I made the personal decision to make sure I take times where I fast from technology – be it a day, an evening or an extended period of time. Sometimes I go a whole day, sometimes it’s just turning off all electronics after a certain time each night. It forces you to find different, and more human, ways of connecting with others.

    Great post Jeff – and thanks for the warning before my Macbook sprouted arms and tried to strangle me =D

  • Charlie Chang

    Yeah, I struggle with this too.  So why do you think this is?  Why is it easier to connect with people online than offline?

    I think of the time when AOL first came out and IM was so much more wonderful simply because on IM as opposed to the phone, there were no awkward pauses or a need to fill the silence.  On IM, the other person could send you a sentence and you wouldn’t have to respond right that second, you could come back in 2 minutes and it would be fine.

    I think it’s hilarious that sometimes on FB I see posts on other people’s walls’ that say, “Did you get my txt?  Did you get my voicemail?”  It’s like we’ll do anything not to physically talk to the person.

    I’ve often felt very compelled to just get rid of FB for these reasons.  I don’t know but this post has a lot of stuff to think about.

    • good questions, charlie. the simple answer? anonymity. relationship is risky. being anonymous is safer. that’s why people act differently online than off.

  • Your blog is definitely making some noise. Yesterday on my blog I asked for readers favorite blogs and you were mentioned multiple times. Great stuff!

  • Lia London

    I still love books, and have my nose in them about as much as many others have their noses glued to their smart phones.  However, I tend to find that when we each put our distraction down, I’ve got more to say because reading stimulates the mind, whereas a lot of the tech games and social media out there simply occupy the mind.  

    No, I’m not perfect.  I’ve had a love-hate relationship with social media, and just last night sliced my FB friend list in half by removing all the folks I can see face-to-face easily at least once a week.  I need to strengthen those relationships offline.  Even though I feel that way about the medium, I still feel that withdrawal twitch sometimes.  When there’s a spare moment in the day, I want to go see what I missed.  Usually not much.  Better to pick up a pen and paper and jot down observations or ideas for my next chapter or blog…

  • Andrea Lawrence

    Hi Jeff- I love this! 

    Social media has turned me into an approval seeking whore.As soon as I walk into the office I jump on the computer to see how much approval I might have missed while I was asleep.I used to check e-mail first to see what I had to do. Those days are long gone. 

    • Yep. Couldn’t agree more. Except I don’t even wait for the office, I pop out of bed and check the phone.

      I am believing more and more that we are experiencing a dire shortage these days of real. live. human. beings. And I fear, unfortunately, that most days I am NOT one of them.

      Here’s to being human!

    • interesting. thanks for sharing, andrea.

  • TMZ

    I desperately need a Facebook fast every now and then. I’m usually pretty good with the rest of the internet, but Facebook becomes a bigger and bigger beast for me as time goes on. It’s amazing how the seemingly innocent act of keeping in touch with people can turn into a massive obsession/problem.

    • yeah. interestingly, i don’t struggle with facebook check-ins. twitter, blog, and email, though, is another story.

  • Very convicting questions. I’m addicted to technology. Just today I forgot my iPhone at home and felt disconnected and isolated. I’ve never considered the Terminator-esque implications of how technology like Twitter and Facebook have changed our lives and behavior.

    I agree that the medium is just as important as the content of the message. It’s like the packaging of a gift.

    • maybe even moreso. for example, if you knew that the packaging was soaked in lead would you still wrap your edible gift with it?

      • Exactly. Or would your wife have said “yes” if the ring was in a cheap paper envelope instead of the snazzy little felt box?

        • Well, probably… in fact, it wasn’t in a box. it was tied to the string on my hoodie. 😉
          The fact that we need to acknowledge is this: some media may be neutral. but others may be harmful. What happens when you serve 100 people food — with lead plates and utensils? In that case, the vessel for carrying the food is very important (and possibly fatal).
          Same may be true for certain media we use. For example, your brain processes information differently when you’re reading a book versus watching television. It’s not just content that matters; and this isn’t just packaging, either. In some cases, the vessel carrying the information drastically impact how the information is received and processed.
          Thanks for the comment, KC. All the best to you. Now, I gotta go find a snazzy, felt box. Thanks for making me feel guilty. 😉

  • I recently joined Google+ and LinkedIn.  Those combined with Facebook, Twitter, and this thing called a blog I wonder if I’ll ever be able to go “unplugged” again.  There is always that question of “What am I missing?  Who’s waiting for me to respond?”  Usually the answer is nothing/ no one, but since I do spent a lot of time online, people know it’s a viable way to get a hold of me and fast.  Of course, I want to be there for them, but somewhere I have to draw a line.  I’m also glad to hear I’m not the only one who can’t read more than a few pages in a single sitting (not that I’m proud of it either).

  • Such a great post, Jeff.  I spent a semester in college at an extension program living in a cabin “out of the mainstream”–aka no cell phones, no internet, no television, etc.  It was so refreshing, yet a little uncomfortable at first.  The result was deeper relationships, in-depth conversations, tons of (tangible) books read, more intentional living.

    I had been so looking forward to turning in my cell phone for three months, and even now when I go on vacation, I look forward to falling off the grid for a while.  But why does it have to only be when I go on vacation?  Somehow I find it completely impossible to be anything other than completely plugged in at all times in my daily life.  A slippery slope, indeed.

  • Great topic, Jeff.  I think this is huge problem nowadays.  I still have a stupid phone 😉 for this very reason.   I’m kind of scared to see what I would turn into if I had internet available to me 24/7.  Although, my husband and I have been considering upgrading when it’s time.  There are so many advantages to having one.

    • smart people have stupid phones… and vice versa. 😉

  • As a blogger and someone who uses the internet to gauge reaction and to practice writing, it can become very addicting.  Wisdom dictates that we set  boundaries in our lives so that one portion isn’t overwhelming the other.

    • i like what my friend keith jennings says: harmony over balance. balance is a myth, often leaving us feeling defeated for not being perfect. harmony is something different.  he writes about it here: https://www.keithjennings.com/2011/09/root-notes.html

      • Thanks for this. “the Beauty lies in the tension” That is so true of our faith as well as our relationships.

  • Man, killer post Jeff. Cuts me. I also need to get a handle on all of this.

    • thanks, brandon. you and me both. hope you’re doing well. great to connect in person the other week!

  • Matt

    Hey Jeff,

    This is very thought provoking. I don’t have a good answer so I’ll avoid giving just any… I’ll give this more thought.Thanks!Hope you’re doing well,

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