The Medium is the Message on the Web

Disclaimer: This post arose as a result of some half-baked thoughts & tweets on the train journey in to work today, partly inspired by a lot of thinking about social networking, also by Michael Smethurst’s excellent blog post which is basically the post to read for any self respecting developer or designer on the Web.

Two of the great success stories of recent years have been Facebook and Twitter. Now, no matter what you think of them now, whether you agree or disagree with where they are headed (I for one think that they’re both showing various signs of getting slightly too big for their boots, Twitter much less so than Facebook), it’s extremely interesting and important to investigate why they’ve been so successful. The simplest analysis to make is that they’ve succeeded because of some ill-defined ‘power of social networking’ or ‘social media’ or ‘user-generated content’. Whilst this is true, it’s a very cursory explanation, and often leads to the conclusion – well, we better put ‘social media’ features on our company’s website if we want to succeed/compete with the likes of Facebook & Twitter.

This isn’t a criticism of social networking in general, either. Rather, it’s a call for us to examine and understand why social networking has taken off so well on the Web. Obviously, an important part of people’s affection or dislike of Facebook & Twitter is the content. Meaningless, useful, lighthearted, dangerous, and so on. I’d like to take the time to examine this phenomenon from the point of view of the theories of Marshall McLuhan.

I’ve gone on about his theories a fair amount before, but I do think there’s something useful to be gained by testing out his theories on contemporary culture. The theories may not be perfect, but they provide an interesting perspective on the success or otherwise of media, and, I’d argue, can inform the design and strategy of new things that can utilise the properties and effects of a medium to its full advantage. To put it simply, his theory that ‘the medium is the message’ means that what’s important when studying the effect of a particular media is not the content, but rather the form and characteristics of the medium itself. From what I’ve read, McLuhan had a pretty hard-line stance on the issue of content – that, essentially, any debate over whether a medium was ‘good or bad’ that focused solely on the content was ultimately useless. I’d temper this by saying that the content is important to some extent, but I’d certainly agree that of much more importance is an examination of the medium itself.

McLuhan was writing in the 1960s, and so was able to examine various forms of media, from the formation of language and written communication down to television, radio and cinema. I’ve been gathering his quotes as I’ve been reading his seminal work, Understanding Media, and what’s interesting is that much of what he says can be applied to the Web, providing an interesting angle for discussion and debate – something he was unable to take part in, in terms of the Web.

I won’t go into massive detail here, but I’d argue that when examining the Web as a medium in and of itself, we need to ignore the content and indeed, to some extent, the tech stack. What’s more important for me is the general conceptual form of the Web, by which I mean that it is a web. Dots and lines connected to each other. The dots can represent anything. The lines link dots together, but they also describe how and why the dots are linked.

So, if it’s important to study the medium rather the message, and Facebook & Twitter are the two services we’re going to use as case studies, why have they been so successful? Acknowledging but ignoring the actual content for now, let’s take a look at each service in turn. What we can see is that they both have taken advantage of characteristics of the Web in slightly different ways.

Facebook – Yes, they’re not great. They’re obtuse, follow the ‘walled garden’ pattern and are showing rampant signs of the misguided mentality of a ‘big’ successful company, namely, that they know best and everything should go through them. But think about it. Part of the big struggle the Linked Data and Semantic Web communities, myself included, have had to face in the past year or so, is the obsession with documents and pages. All too often when talking about the Web or designing new ‘products’ and services, we fall back into the metaphor of pages. “What does the page look like?”, “We need to promote this page” etc. But notice that we scoff at people who talk of ‘my Facebook page’ or indeed ‘my Twitter page’. That’s because Facebook have succeeded to some extent where we’re still struggling. The user mental model when engaging with Facebook, primarily through networking with friends, is not through linking and visiting pages. You don’t become a friend of a page, in the user’s mind. You’re not making links between pages in their minds. You’re connecting between people. You’re using the Web to represent (for the most part) the connections you make between people in the real wold – linking things, not pages. They’ve seamlessly converted users to thinking in terms of a Web of things, even if the technological background isn’t quite there. And thus, social networks are so successful precisely because they’re networks of things. And that’s what the Web allows us to do – which we should celebrate and make more of. There’s so much creativity we can unleash if we don’t limit ourselves to the restraints of pages, and think in terms of things.

Twitter – Now, obviously Twitter has similar characteristics to Facebook, when looking at a glance, even if the ‘friendship’ model is rather different – again, they’re making you think things, not pages. But there’s a couple of other things they do which use the Web as a medium. Firstly, as Michael puts it – “every nugget of content [is] addressable at a persistent URI…Every tweet, no matter how mindless or empty of content and meaning has it’s own URI.“. In other words, in this case the message hasn’t shaped the platform – the medium has. Of course, with domain driven design, the content should also shape the platform to some extent – design with the ‘world’ of content you’re aiming the platform to hold in mind – but with something like Twitter, the whole point is that you can talk about anything. Secondly, although this seems to be changing more and more (perhaps for the good, perhaps for the worse), Twitter has kept things simple. It hasn’t tried to do everything. Instead, it has a clear, simple structure, which, importantly, is open and addressable. There’s no fancy widgets or complicated APIs. There’s just simplicity, so that others can build on top of this. Who would those others be? Anyone, even Twitter themselves. but the important thing is that they not only use the medium in terms of URIs for each Tweet, but they don’t try to ‘own’ everything – others can build stuff on top of their data, and if it’s successful, everyone wins.

To be honest, these aren’t earth-shattering revelations, and indeed I’m sure I’m not an expert in any way on either of the services above – but just thinking about the Web in these terms is what I’m trying to encourage.

In conclusion, if you want to think about why Facebook & Twitter have been so successful, and you want to achieve such heady heights, you should at least consider the above factors. And remember, it’s not so simple as adding a Twitter stream to your company’s page, or having an account on there. Nor is it about Facebook widgets or a ‘fan page. Instead, look at what made them successful, They used the Web. Really used it. They concentrated on things, not pages – they had a domain model and an idea of their users’ mental model. They didn’t try to do everything themselves (at first, at least), and (at least one of them) kept things simple and open, so others could build upon it, and make things better for everyone. Most importantly, they took the time to think about how their service would work when stitched into the Web, and moreover, how it would work as a web itself. So think about how you can do the same too. Oh, and again, seriously, if you want to do any kind of Web design/development, read this first.