Marshall McLuhan first explored the link between social change and communication technology in a study that produced his theory of media ecology (1964). A key piece of that theory is The Tetrad, a way to consider the social impacts of any technology or medium in terms of four effects: obsolescence, enhancement, retrieval and reversal. To illustrate how this works, I will use the Tetrad to analyze Twitter as a communication medium in order to reveal its influence on society.
Decades before people leashed themselves to smart phones and social media clogged us with check-in features, McLuhan predicted in 1974 that electronic information would create an environment absent of secrecy (McLuhan, 1974). Communication technology has transformed itself from an electronic workstation to a tool for individual, personal use (McLuhan, 1966), a module for people to broadcast and consume electronic information. Social identities rely on engagement with each other (Moscovici, 1988; Tajfel, 1982). And the evolution of communication technology has enabled society to evolve as well by making it possible to bond by means other than those traditional settings typically associated with engagement, like barber shops and the dinner table (Goldfarb, 2006). We can now use McLuhan’s Tetrad, created during the 1960’s, to explain a much more recent phenomena: Twitter. (Wikipedia, 2014; McLuhan, 1988).
Twitter Seen Through McLuhan’s Tetrad
McLuhan’s tetrad model (1988) asks the analyst to apply four laws of media to any device or medium as a way to explore the medium’s relationship to society (McLuhan, 1988). These four laws say that every medium does the following:
1. enhances- what does this medium enhance?
2. obsolesces- what becomes irrelevant?
3. retrieves- what does the medium recover which was once lost?
4. reverses – what happens to the medium when pushed to its limit (Wikipedia, 2014).
Twitter is a microblogging, social networking site that allows users 140 characters to express themselves in a “tweet” (Wikipedia, 2014). From its slow start in 2006, Twitter as of January of 2014 has over 640 million active registered users (Statistic Brain, 2014). Therefore as a media device, twitter can illustrate how this popularity has impacted those users as a whole:
Enhance – social, global engagement
Obsolesce − face to face interaction
Retrieve − intergroup relations, community memberships
Reverse − Inability to speak to each other outside of digital languages; Loss of physical, tangible community; literal places branded for social engagement (e.g. water cooler, dinner table, etc.)
As previously stated, our social identity depends upon participating in intergroup activity (Tajfel, 1982). And Twitter as a device recovers that sense by enabling users to easily find one another through digital languages only fellow affiliates within the group would understand. McLuhan (1968) stated, “the effect of the electric revolution is to create once more an involvement that is total.” The literal alphabet language as a result has evolved in new spaces like Twitter and gives users the ability to feel connected to others by a shared use of digital languages (e.g. #hashtags, RT retweets, @).
The last tetrad rule illustrates the effects of the medium when its flipped and overly consumed. Therefore, as Twitter allows people to communicate with each other in a short and coded way, an overconsumption of this can make people forget how to actually use the literal alphabet language we were originally taught to speak with. How often have you heard “LOL” or “OMG” or “hashtag FML” in real life and not actually in tweet where it was designed? (In this reversal, this becomes language.)
Also, Twitter can also bring about the end of physical settings once branded for interaction. For example, when I feel like being social, I’ll go to a park or a local mom and pop coffee shop. But I still take my iphone, headphones, and laptop. They are my human extension. I catch myself feeling compelled to share what I am doing with my inner circle of friends. And when I look up, I see everyone doing the same thing. In this sense, Twitter becomes the community.
The patterns between humanities and communication technology are truly codependent. When one evolves, so does the other. Natives of the Electric Age have shown that computer stations would eventually become branded for more personal use as McLuhan (1974) projected. And coincidently, our social identities continue to feed off of the flooding amount of information available because of “the end of monopolies of knowledge” (McLuhan, 1974). McLuhan devised the tetrad analysis as an ageless tool to show the effects of this relationship between society and technology by asking four questions that target the consumer and their use of any given device. Twitter for example, reflects that while both local and global engagement is heightened by the increase of community/group affiliations, face to face interaction and the spaces built for that are becoming less prominent. As a prospective media psychologist, I see the tetrad model as a way to discover new information about the intent of not only the user, but also the device itself.
McLuhan, M. (1988). McLuhan’s Laws of Media. Retrieved from http://www.horton.ednet.ns.ca/staff/scottbennett/media/
Marshall McLuhan Speaks — Communication via the internet [Video file]. (1966). Retrieved from http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/prophecies/1966-communication-via-the-internet.php
Marshall McLuhan Speaks — Privacy in the electric age [Video file]. (1968). Retrieved from http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/prophecies/1968-privacy-in-the-electric-age.php
Marshall McLuhan Speaks — End of secrecy [Video file]. (1974). Retrieved from http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/electric-age/1974-end-of-secrecy.php
Marshall McLuhan Speaks — Global village [Video file]. (1977). Retrieved from http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/sayings/1977-global-village.php
Twitter Statistics | Statistic Brain. (2014, January 1). Retrieved from http://www.statisticbrain.com/twitter-statistics/
Tetrad of media effects – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (2014). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrad_of_media_effects