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Making (McLuhan) Sense of the Arab Spring, iPad, Borders, News of the World…


July 21, 2011

Doug Hadden, VP Products

[on the centenary of Marshall McLuhan‘s birth]

Is social media changing society? Business? Government? Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, why the revolution will not be tweeted, has spurned an echo chamber. An acoustic meme, battling with social media noise. It’s hard to separate, in McLuhan terms, the figure (what’s important now) from the ground.

Media Effects

Marshall McLuhan studied the effects of media. He saw how a new medium, like the printing press, inevitably led to the nation state. He described how a new medium uses the previous medium as content, such as television using radio programs at first – until, the medium becomes the message. The medium changes which has effects in society. A new medium changes the previous medium.

Social Media Effects

Some important effects that we are seeing in the transition from old media to new media:

  1. Traditional media changed new media/social media: reality television, telephone hacking (News of the World) , opinionated cable news adjusts to compete against the always-on internet. It’s an industrial response to a knowledge economy problem.
  2. Social media disintermediation of organizational structures built from industrialization: political parties, unions and NGOs as seen with the Arab Spring where groups self-organized. Traditional organizations are insufficiently agile in the digital age.
  3. Use of traditional media power becomes ineffective: fighting back against social media (Arab Spring, NewsCorp) information through controlled media makes buffoons out of leaders
  4. Acceleration of transparency and accountability: social media thrives on transparency with emphasis on open government, Facebook, and corporate governance. Information once held tight by organizations is exposed via social media. Media monopolies and state media is losing the information battle.
  5. Change of role of traditional media: industrial media items such as the book have changed roles and are being deployed in digital means. The new medium uses the old medium as content.
  6. Category confusion: traditional categories become confusing as new medium enters the transitional phase like “radio with pictures” “horseless carriage”. Today, it’s “social media journalism” where many claim superiority of traditional journalism over social media authors.

The effects of the printing press, telegraph, radio and television did not occur overnight. Much of the criticism suggesting that social media is not affecting change comes from not seeing the trend.


Social media is in the early stage of transforming society. This transformation is gradual.











  1. Observers see the new medium as a variation of a previous medium and see that this change has limited or no impact because of lack of uptake (automobiles) or uptake by influential groups (Facebook)
  2. General view that the new medium is vulgar (from Socrates view of writing – will eliminate memory to You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier)
  3. Use of the previous medium as content leads some to think that the new medium has no use, no content. It’s natural for European television news to report on newspaper headlines and it’s natural to tweet links to on-line newspapers.
  4. When there is an effect (Arab Spring), experts deny that it had much of an effect.
  5. The nature of the medium comes into effect, changing the visceral connections between humans and the medium.

All media, according to McLuhan, are extensions of Man. Digital media is becoming an extension of the nervous system. So, you are not a gadget, but gadgets are extending you.


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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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