Communication has an incredible effect on our lives. It is how we interact with each other, gain information, and learn new things. Communication takes many forms and mediums throughout history; from oral histories and stories, to cave paintings, to town criers and newsboys shouting “Extra, extra, read all about it on” street corners, to twenty-four hour news cycles.
We just can’t seem to get enough communication. In today’s digital age, it is easier than ever to find information, but what impact has this new-found accessibility had on our perceptions, our culture and the way we manage business?
The serious study of the impact media has on culture began some 50 years ago when Marshall McLuhan published his famous work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This seminal piece of literature builds upon his famous theory and coining of the term “The medium is the message.” Twenty years later he expanded on his original theories in The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. In it, he says:
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication. The alphabet, for instance, is a technology that is absorbed by the very young child in a completely unconscious manner, by osmosis so to speak. Words and the meaning of words predispose the child to think and act automatically in certain ways. […] Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement. It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.” (Emphasis added)1.
McLuhan died in 1980, the same year CNN launched. His insights about the impact of media still resonate today.
The Digital Age Has Changed Everything
To understand the workings of media, as McLuhan advised, one must also understand that the format, the medium, and the shape of the way we project, communicate, or demonstrate our ideas shapes the message itself. Today’s digital devices demand our constant attention, completely changing the ways we interact, advertise, work, entertain, gain knowledge, conduct business, create, communicate and so much more.
Now, you can talk to anyone at any time. Ideas can flow quickly and are often quite explosive. Managers are finding they need to communicate with younger employees in a whole new manner. Businesses that do not understand the explosive nature of the digital communication network can often find themselves struggling to catch up with a negative storyline. If McLuhan conjectured that “The goose quill put an end to talk,”2 should we also ask ourselves, “The internet put an end to what?”
The digital revolution has given us the ability to easily copy and replicate things. While this maybe helpful in championing a product on the digital highway, it also means managers will need to work harder to protect their original ideas, product innovations, and copyrighted insights.
Culturally, digital has changed the way we identify with one another and form communities. While 20th century consumers bonded in tight-knit neighborhoods, today’s target demographics gather together in far-flung global communities. They can easily gather in chat rooms, YouTube communities, and online forums to share personal stories or provide advice. Business managers will need to do more to ferret out these new communities in order to find advocates and influencers who can help them build a brand message.
As a result of photography’s, perpetuated by digitization, impact, we have become a much more visual society. Images and photography have become an integral part of our culture and understanding. In fact, Maria Popova took Susan Sontag’s On Photography and applied it to today’s media obsessed culture in “The Susan Sontag Guide to Photography in the Age of Digital Culture.”3 While Sontag observed that there are a great number of images grabbing for our attention, “‘[…] photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe,’”4 Popova concludes that events only happen now to be photographed and put on our “timeline” or “profile,” saying they were filled with notable moments.5 “‘Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.’”6
Now we are overrun with images, meaning that businesses will need to work even harder to stand out in a world of visual overload. Imagery and photographs used in communication and marketing must be clear, precise and meaningful. They need to add to the storylines that consumers are creating for themselves.
Digital Has Changed the Way we Communicate
The dynamics of communication change in cyberspace; people are more open and do not use as many filters as they would in face-to-face communications. “‘Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. […] [On the other hand] out spills rude language, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats.’”7This feeling of over-familiarity confers undue credulity and equality on even the most pedestrian of bloggers. “No one knows your credentials or lack thereof, so you are taken as seriously as everyone else.”8
How can businesses stand out in what is now considered to be an equal playing field where everyone and anyone can create a website or blog, and say what they want? Perhaps they can take a lesson from the way today’s celebrities, who are learning to interact with their fans in a whole new way. “Prior to computers, magazines and cinema were the sole outlets influencing your perception of beauty.”9 Now, “[Stars’] lives are chronicled on a daily basis thanks to Twitter, blogs, online magazines and other easily attainable media, creating an almost intimate relationship between the public and the stars.”10 While stars and celebrity fan sites may be focused on perceptions of gossip, beauty and popularity, business managers can use these very same outlets to build similar, almost intimate relationships with the consuming public.
Our Sense of Self-Identity is Changing
Online capabilities allow people to take on virtually any personality or body form. There are “Avatar representations of who you ‘are,’ but you can change them as you wish.”11 This flexibility of personality makes it possible for celebrities to occupy multiple identities at once (such as Beyonce/Sasha Fierce), and for multiple people and graphics to occupy the same identity or role/function, similar to the Lara Croft, the pope, and kings.12
This blurring of the individual, cultural, and societal lines makes managing and marketing even more challenging in the 21st century. “McLuhan recognized how our society had changed radically with the introduction of the visual language of writing and the further widespread impact following the introduction of the printing press.”13 Recently, we have faced another revolution of communication, the digital age. But even he might have difficulty formulating an effective approach to today’s employees, business colleagues and consumers.
Building upon the evolution from quill pen and printing press to cyberspace, what is today’s business managers to do to maneuver this revolution of technology, communication, and identity in order to appeal to their target audience? They could rely on the skills of anthropologists and ethnographers to help them understand the cultural changes in society, and their business sensibilities, advising them accordingly to adapt.
1 Marshal McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, and Shepard Fairey (illustrator), The Medium is the Massage, (Berkeley, CA:Gingko Press 2001): 8
2 McLuhan 48
3 Maria Popova, “The Susan Sontag Guide to Photography in the Age of Digital Culture,” slate.com, last modified October 11, 2013.
4 Popova, slate.com
5 Popova, slate.com
6 Sontag cited by Popova, slate.com
7 John Suler, – Online Essays – http://users.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/, cited by Wardle 10
8 Wardle 10
9 Robert Tornambe, “Be Realistic! How Technology Affects Your Perception of Beauty,” oprah.com, published April 20, 2010.
10 Tornambe, oprah.com
11 Wardle 20
12 Wardle 16-18
13 Wardle 8
Jure Klepic is a Digital Strategist who is willing to say what others leave unspoken. He leads digital and marketing adoptions for global brands and continues to drive change and spearhead innovation. Throughout his career he has worked with global brands from USA to Asia. Jure is a recognized business and marketing thought leader, he is a speaker and a regular contributor to Huffington Post.