What is the E=MC² of social media?

To continue the theme of simplicity.  I like analogies and stories.  Here is one about simplicity and the need to shift from observation to explanation.  Before Einstein, physics appeared to be a complicated business and there were lots of people running around describing this complexity.  Then Einstein came along and said “you may see complexity, but what I see is E=MC²”.  This is probably the greatest piece of simplicity the world has ever seen.  Even I can understand that formula and yet it has the power to the explain the way universe works.

It didn’t necessarily make physics itself easier, but it provided a framework for understanding it and building practical applications.  We need something similar in social media.  We have plenty of people running around describing what is happening, but not enough people trying to explain why it is happening.  We need to find the E=MC² of social media.

My attempt at it is this.  The social media revolution is all about the liberation of information from restrictive means of distribution.

That is it.  The medium is no longer the message, the message can be itself, freed from the requirement to shape itself to the channels (networks, platforms etc) it has to sit within.  The implication of this for communications is the we are likewise liberated from the need to talk to audiences.  The implications of this for society in general is that trust has been liberated from institutions and can now live within transparent processes.  Information can be trusted on its own account, rather than via trust vested in the channel or institution from which comes.  After all, what is Twitter?  It is not an institution, it is a process, Wikipedia likewise.

Unfortunately, we all remain channel or institution fixated, because that is the way we have always done things, or because we have a commercial interest in a particular channel or institution.  Or because to embrace the implications of this shift is to accept that the world is going to change.

3 comments

  1. Doug Hadden

    I don’t think that you have as good an understanding of Marshall McLuhan and the “medium is the message” as you do for physics. McLuhan was referring to the notion that the medium itself has more impact on the message than any individual piece of content. For example, the printing press has been widely understood to have created the nation state. That’s a lot more powerful affect than the content of any one book.

    He predicted many of the effects of the Internet without realizing what it was to become. It’s true that McLuhan saw the speeding up of information, being untethered from data and a re-tribalization whereby we could interact with like-minded people.

    My sense is that the notion of data liberation through social media (and other technologies) is have profound societal effects that will be every bit as transformational as the book, phonetic alphabet and analog electronics.

    • RichardStacy

      I don’t understand physics at all! However, my understanding of McLuhan is as you state it. My understanding is that he is talking about the power of the channel over the content that sits within it. He was probably saying this because at the time of writing, the power of the channel was taken for granted and was thus almost invisible – the focus instead was on the message – and McLuhan was positing a correction to this content driven bias. And I am saying that this power resulted from the expense of the channels concerned – be they printing presses or TV stations (something McLuhan did not focus on – but perhaps that was because the ability for distribution to be free was not realisable at the time). Social media does away with the expense and thus liberates content from the tyranny of the channel. And thus, as you say, can be predicted to have profound societal effects.

      You are also right to highlight McLuhan’s prediction of the internet – the Global Village, electronic interdependence and all that. It is also worth remembering that his view of the possible consequences was not just about interaction with like-minded people.

      “Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. […]”

      Panic terrors, Big Brother (or is that Big Data). The message may well have escaped from the medium, but there is still much we need to learn from McLuhan.

      • Doug Hadden

        Yes, McLuhan had many interesting views of what “tribalization” would look like in the digital age. It’s interesting that he viewed this as a spiritual connection. And, he thought that cultures that were more tribal in the 20th century would take to digital more intuitively.
        Minor clarification:
        McLuhan’s view that a medium – (and all technology) – played a significant role in changing society (including the concept of “hot” and “cool”) were rather more controversial then than they are now. We still have people like Evgeny Morozov who don’t believe in the effects of media on society. He also analyzed radio, film and television in great depth in Understanding Media in ’64. (Gutenberg Galaxy in ’62 was primarily about the book)

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