Marshall McLuhan and Donald Trump’s Twitter Feed
Hate it or love it, you know you just can’t take your eyes off Donald Trump’s twitter. If you had a nickel for every time someone came up to you and said, “did you see what he tweeted now” you’d be set to retire tomorrow. Trump’s twitter presence is unprecedented in the realm of politics. We as political consumers are used to our political leaders being somewhat distant. Typically, our elected leaders give blanketed statements on issues and generally keep their next move secret. You know the ones on CNN, NBC and ABC like, “the president and his staff are working on that now”. Statements that are broadcasted nationally and mean nothing, but reassure us nonetheless. However, after Trump’s successful, twitter-led presidential campaign, everyone was sort of left scratching their heads. Everyone except Marshall McLuhan that is.
Marshall McLuhan is arguably one of the most overlooked thinkers of our time. Mass amounts of people flocked to his lectures just to hear of snippet of what he had to say. Even people like John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol went out of their way just to hear a sound byte or two. He was a pioneer in understanding what media is and how it shapes our behavior, writing over twelve books on the subject. He even predicted the Internet some 35 years before the Internet came into existence. But when brought up in conversation, most people have no idea who he is.
Born in 1911 in Canada, McLuhan lived out his days as a professor, philosopher and most importantly a media theorist. He focused his writings and lectures on communication and how mediums and media transform our everyday life. He is famous for his identification of four distinct ages of human progress; the acoustic age, the written age, mass production (Fordism) and the electronic age. And while these categories may seem obvious and trivial, it’s important to keep in mind McLuhan foretold of the electronic age in the early 1960’s, just before it actually began. However, McLuhan is most famous for his concepts of a ‘global village’ and how ‘the medium is the message’. Both of which, are crucial in understanding why Trump’s twitter led presidential campaign was so successful, and what it means going forward.
But before we dive down that rabbit hole, it’s important to understand what those two concepts actually mean. McLuhan’s idea of a ‘global village’ is basically that of the Internet. He predicted that print culture (newspapers, books, pamphlets) would eventually be ousted by “electronic interdependence” and spoke about how technological extensions of our consciousness, would soon alter our social structure to one of a more unified culture. This may sound confusing, but when simplified, McLuhan is basically saying technology changes how we interact with one another, and that the Internet would bring us all closer than ever before, creating a ‘global village’. And he wasn’t wrong. The Internet has granted us the ability to see what’s happening anywhere in the world at anytime. You can look at tweets from a person from Germany in one tab, watch a live stream from Japan in another and simultaneously FaceTime your newborn nephew for the first time. McLuhan’s idea of a ‘global village’ has been realized, time and space have been compressed, and our interactions with one another will never be the same.
McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ concept goes hand in hand with that of the ‘global village’. At its core, ‘the medium is the message’ means content is irrelevant, as the medium is what shapes and alters human behavior. In this situation, a medium refers to a means by which something is communicated or expressed. To support this idea McLuhan famously gives the example of the light bulb. In McLuhan’s eyes, a light bulb isn’t important because it gives off electricity, it’s important because of how it changed human interaction. With the invention of the light bulb, people could now do more at night. People could stay out at resturants and bars later, could work later into the night and simply do more. The light bulb changed how we behave. Take the television as another example. The actual shows on TV don’t matter to McLuhan, but it’s the physical TV that’s important. The TV allowed people to gather together for periods of time in a way that hadn’t existed before. If a family wanted to watch a show, they would’ve had to gone out to a theater, but because of the TV, they were now able to stay in. ‘The medium is the message’ is a crucial concept because it highlights the importance of media in social change.
So now onto Trump. What would media theorist Marshall McLuhan have to say about the President’s pioneering use of social media in politics? Well he’d probably say it was kind of obvious. Social media is the pinnacle of his global village idea, and Trump’s approach to employing social media as a political platform was only a matter of time. Twitter compresses space and time in such a way that our thoughts and ideas become crafted and written tweets for all to consume. By utilizing twitter and social media to promote political agendas, the global village just becomes a little bit tighter. Instead of waiting for statements given by PR reps on CNN, we all can see what our political leaders think about a topic in real time. And it’s become so, that if an elected official doesn’t respond to a statement or current event on social media in a timely manner, they may be seen as hiding something or evasive. Politics on twitter are just an example of the furtherance of the technological interconnectedness McLuhan foretold of.
But now what? Are we going to have to deal with even more tweets from politicians? Will Trump start doing briefings on Facebook live? What’s the next step in this interconnectedness? More tweets are most likely guaranteed in the future and as for the Facebook live…maybe? As for the next step in interconnectedness, we have to look to McLuhan’s second big idea ‘the medium is the message’. What we’ve learned so far about Trump’s success on twitter, is that it was due a lot to the fact that people thought it made him more transparent. And if there’s one thing that we want in our politicians, its transparency. So let’s say the medium of twitter made Trump, a presidential candidate, more transparent. Our interaction with and expectation of presidential candidates and politicians has now changed. Forget about what Trump’s tweets actually say, that’s not important. It’s the idea of him being visible, accessible and transparent that is. Never before have we been able to be this close with our President. The President has always been someone who was in the newspapers or on the television giving a statement that we couldn't directly respond to. But now we can literally tweet at him. That’s the message. We can interact with our President in real time. We can read his thoughts in real time. Trump’s prowess on twitter will forever change what we expect from our politicians on social media, not because of what he said, but because of how he said it.
Well what does this physically look like for next election or even the next next election? Who knows? Technology moves so fast that it’s hard to predict. Maybe there’ll be a campaign that’s even more rooted in twitter than Trump’s was. Maybe in an effort to achieve complete transparency, a candidate will wear a live stream body cam 24/7 (kind of like how Emma Watson’s character did in The Circle). Maybe in-person debates will be a thing of the past. McLuhan would say it’s all possible.
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This was article was written by Red Summit Productions Intern Tyler Dolph.