Making Waves for Fun and Profit

“When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust.” — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

I read somewhere that pilots about to break the sound barrier can see the wave building around their wings before they burst through to the other side. Sound as light and matter. 

It’s a metaphor that came to mind as the stories of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the Etch-A-Sketch slip of the tongue from the Romney camp built, crested, and broke in a matter of hours. It’s almost wrong to mention these events in the same sentence: the shooting of a young, unarmed black male teenager by a “neighborhood watch” vigilante takes one’s breath away. The Etch-A-Sketch fracas is high comedy—and the fact that sales—and stock value—of the beloved childhood toy shot up in the wake of the gaffe is simple proof that there is nothing that cannot be turned to commercial purposes. No doubt hoodie sales will increase because Trayvon Martin was wearing one when he was shot. Someone somewhere will come out with a commemorative one emblazoned with his portrait and a slogan. 

And therein lies the agony and the ecstasy of our current media. Personal pain becomes public property. What is done in darkness is shouted from the rooftops. Justice ignored becomes justice exposed. All to the good, but at what cost?

The shooting story built for nearly a month before it went viral. As near as I can tell, ABC News was the first to break the story of questionable police conduct in the investigation of the shooting, and after that the wave of public interest crested. A website gathered a quarter of a million signatures in a matter of days. At one point they were pouring at the rate of 10,000 an hour. The parents asked the Justice Department and the FBI to get involved in the case because the local sheriff had bungled the handling of it. A march was organized in New York and, inevitably, the Reverend Al Sharpton could be found organizing another in the Florida town where the tragedy occurred. Celebrities like Justin Bieber and Spike Lee tweeted about it and President Obama pledged in a press conference to get to the bottom of the case. Newt Gingrich, trailing badly in the Republican primaries, took the time to criticize the president for his ‘divisive’ remarks. In Gingrich’s view this is not a racial issue but an American issue. This from a man who unified his party through the art of divisiveness while Speaker of the House. 

I happened to be reading Marshall McLuhan, that media oracle of the 60s, this week. Reading McLuhan is both exhilarating and tiring because his writing style mimics the ripple effect from throwing a rock into a pool of water. Several of them. All at once. Here comes a ripple from a center point and—oh, there’s another—and look!, here comes another one! The cumulative effect is like hearing French horns in a fog: It’s lovely and mysterious, but you can’t tell which direction the sound is coming from. 

Nevertheless, several passages seemed to cast some light upon the way media attention to events convey, shape, and accelerate responses. “Myth,” says McLuhan, “is the instant vision of a complete process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process, and the instant speed of electricity confers the mythic dimension on ordinary industrial and social action today. We live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily and on single planes.” *

A local incident, one family’s unspeakable horror, becomes a national and even international event through two factors. The first is the mythic nature of the story, all too familiar in our society. A young black man is killed because he neatly fit into a matrix constructed through fear and ignorance. The fact that young black men are killed in disproportionate numbers in America is part of our “American Skin,” as Bruce Springsteen famously sang. The second thing is that this mythic story, easily reduced to a couple of lines and endlessly amplified and recycled through the global village, is transformed through a complex of media into a commodity which can be repackaged and resold. The shelf life is short, but that simply drives up the value of the product. 

It’s a Faustian bargain we make. If you’ve got a cause worth shouting about can you afford not to run it through the media mill? Recently, one organization’s cause went viral with the result that millions heard the story and were moved to action of some kind. 

The Invisible Children organization put up a 30-minute documentary about Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. Within days millions saw it, wrote petitions, and influenced policy makers to redouble efforts to hunt down Kony for crimes against humanity. 

Naturally, one of the effects of this public relations coup was that the social media industry tried to capture and bottle the essence of the campaign. If only every cause could learn to go viral like that! they were saying. There is almost unlimited power to reach and influence the world through Vimeo, YouTube, and other media. But it’s not clear why one effort is a hit while another just tanks. Whatever the reasons, it’s not magic nor can it be reduced to a formula. 

Sadly, the attention generated by the cause was almost rivaled by the very public psychological breakdown of the director and narrator of the film, Jason Russell. Russell was found, naked and agitated, pacing back and forth outside his headquarters in San Diego—all of it captured on video and seen, no doubt, by millions.  

But there are too many variables in the success of the “Kony 2012” campaign, and even the “Million Hoodie March” campaign on behalf of Trayvon Martin, for anyone to draw firm conclusions on the method at this point. The most we can say, it seems to me, is that the tools of social media can have extraordinary reach. That’s a result, not a cause. 

McLuhan dropped another pebble in the water for me when he said in Understanding Media, “Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement.” When almost any incident, from the shooting of a teenager to a gaffe by a campaign advisor to a call for a global hunt for a criminal to the latest wardrobe malfunction of some celebrity can get its 15 minutes or more on the world’s stage we lose the ability to differentiate between acts. For people constantly locked on to changes in each ring of the media circus McLuhan sardonically notes, “The price of eternal vigilance is indifference.” 

 “There’s something happenin’ here/What it is ain’t exactly clear,” sang Buffalo Springfield back in the day. Is it good? Is it bad? Some of each, most likely. One thing is sure, according to Marshall McLuhan: No medium is neutral, it’s goodness or evil determined by the ones who pull the trigger and the use to which they put it. The medium is the message.

4 thoughts on “Making Waves for Fun and Profit

  1. One thing for certain media and especially social media is capable of sending any incident, accident or occurrence viral and drawing national and international attention to it. Is this good or bad? probably good more than bad. It galvanizes public opinion and forces action hopefully good. It highlights issues that few of us knew existed like “stand your ground”. Laws designed to serve a mindset that believes that carrying arms and using them against a perceived threat can go unquestioned. That being a vigilante and interpretng the law in your own way is a good thing. I understand the constitutional right to bear arms in 1776 was relevant, but I think the interpretation of this right in 2012 should be different. A certain control of what constitutes acceptable arms and under what guidelines one can acquire a weapon. I understand the NRA and a large segment of the population disagree with controls, but like every right in the universe control must be exercised when the right to carry arms infringes on another's right to live.


  2. You point out the power of the media to bring into light things that are hidden, Oussama. If we follow McLuhan's thinking that the medium is the message, then we can assume anything we say in this medium will travel far. Whether it will have the precise effect we want can't be determined ahead of time. But we're still learning all this for a medium that is still quite young. Perhaps we'll get better at it with time and practice! Thanks for your perceptive comment.


  3. I hope that is not the case, but it seems so in the short run. I wonder if the level of attention we focus on the object is also influenced by the medium itself. The Internet passes before our eyes with a few clicks; we sit and watch passively, whereas a book creates an internal dialogue and demands some more attention. I'm not sure. . . but McLuhan seems to be on to something intriguing here. Thanks for your comment!


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