Gaurav Mishra has an interesting post on Canadian communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s video on ‘The world is a global village’. The source of his post, by Dan Colman (at Open Culture), talks about social media as a logical fulfillment of what McLuhan outlines in the video.

Gaurav’s observation is on the natural culmination part – that social media is a natural culmination of McLuhanâ??s idea of ‘a global village dancing to the drumbeats of a shared tribal identity’. It is specifically interesting as Gaurav disagrees with this part and goes on to offer differences between McLuhan’s television tribes and Seth Godin’s internet tribes. While I agree with the 3 differences he has put forward on the tribes front (explained later in this post), I do consider Dan’s original thought about the natural culmination.

Let me explain.

McLuhan talks about the printing era (book era) as the era of individual identity. Here we had a consumer (of information) and the medium. The role of the consumer is to consume alone – nothing else was technically possible, or whatever was possible was indeed possible in limited numbers and close circles. So,

  • consumer <- medium

The next era was the electronic era (television/ radio). This, McLuhan calls the shared tribal identity, where we have consumers consuming content from the medium, but not necessarily alone – it’s no wonder it was called ‘mass media’. Given the broadcasting possibilities of television and radio, we created tribes around which we consumed content in homogeneous ways. Hence,

  • consumer(s) <- medium media

It is here that Marshall McLuhan’s other famous phrase, ‘the medium is the message‘ gains significance. Taken together, it makes an interesting observation on how broadcast media was typecast, even back then. Where the medium spoke to the consumer in the book era, in the electronic era, the medium spoke to multiple consumers in similar ways. The interpretation of the content was perhaps manipulatively planned, leading us to believe the ‘medium is the message’ theory.

The new media era indeed seems like a logical progression of this trend –

  • consumers + media <-> consumers + media

Thankfully, we now have a better era. One in which consumers become the media and media becomes consumers, in turn. And, thankfully again, we talk to each other, constantly engaging in a back-and-forth mechanism, depending on the alleged influence of the content creator/originator. The logical progression part is on two levels: the media joins the consumser(s) and vice versa, and the flow of information is now two-way.

It is indeed now…that we see the complete meaning of McLuhan’s ‘the world is a global village’ theory. The flow of information is so rapid across boundaries, languages and other existential differences and it is the interpretation of content that unites people in the new media era…not the medium and not even the raw content.

The multiplicity of tribes in the new media era is a different topic and I believe Gaurav addresses this perfectly well – to put it in perspective, we could perhaps coin the phrase, ‘the world is a set of smaller, global villages’. But I also believe that despite all those multiple tribes, we, in the social media era are connected by a master thread – our attention. Our attention is tied to the social media cloud and that does bring us together at one point even though our specific interests may be different, depending on our individual backgrounds.

A digression: The pertinent point here is the era before McLuhan’s book era – the era of speech. This era was perhaps more relevant to India as a country. Storytelling was an integral part of our country’s knowledge dissemination and to some extent symbolizes the present new media era, where consumers first consumed the content and subsequently added their own variants in it to pass it on to others. How else do you explain so many variations of our epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata, just to name two? If you add the potent theory of Erich von Däniken’s ‘Chariots of the Gods’ to this already-heady cauldron, the story gains even more relevance.