The messenger, medium and message

First, we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us - Marshall McLuhan

An odd thing occurred in 2020 among a great many other odd things when a jewellery company called Tanishq released an ad celebrating an Indian festival. The video tells the story of a family of Muslim faith, celebrating a Hindu festival for their daughter-in-law. The unexpected social-media outcry that followed the release of the ad, caused Tanishq to pull it off the air.

The ad seems to have crossed an unspoken (until-then) societal boundary. Some Indians saw it as a wonderful way to speak about the unity of religions and cultures. Others saw an underhanded conspiracy. It definitely left commentators divided. One could conclude that this may have been a result of polarization caused by the currently ruling, pro-Hindu political party. But could it really be so straight forward?

India has a hierarchical, dynamic society, and it has endured the intrigues of more than a few politicians. Even if the masses are malleable, I suspect it could only be up to a point – even societies self correct. India has too many historic and cultural faultlines for any one party to either bridge or exacerbate. If anything, politics seems to selectively amplify a signal that has been here for some time now.

One can examine this using Stewart Brand’s Pace Layering model. Think of the various layers – nature, culture, societies and governments as overlapping each other. The layer at the bottom moves a lot slower than the one above it. This gives the layer on top traction, a surface to evolve upon. In turn, it becomes the foundation for the one above it. The one right at the top evolves the fastest, and so is also the most unstable.

The message in this case is the ad that caused so much angst. If the technology-layer had not evolved to the social interwebs of today, would the message have been received less cynically?

Consider mass media communications before the advent of self-publishing and social media. It used to be a one-way street. Barring a few curated letters to the editor or sound bytes from the audience, media was primarily about broadcasting. Social media changed that. It made media platforms bi-directional, giving the passive recipient, the power to alter both the message as well as the medium itself.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

The Canadian Philosopher, Marshall McLuhan’s idea of figure and ground, is interesting in this context. The idea that the ground, by which he means, the thing that supports the message, acts as a vehicle for the content, which he refers to as the figure is more than just the sum of their parts. And yet, we tend to pay more attention to the figure.

Perhaps this is why familial conspiracy theorists, that is mamas, chachas, poopis and nanas take Whatsapp news so seriously. Perhaps they are unable to comprehend that the sum of the parts, that is figure+ground, is what matters.

In a case of unevenly distributed futures, the more technologically savvy ones get what the others don’t. They get that the medium and context matters as much as the message. That certain types of posts work better on Instagram than they would on Linkedin, for instance. There is even an intellectual used-car-salesman voice that Youtube influencers use. They build a gestalt, matching word and picture to suit the medium.

That is harder than one might think. My gut tells me that very few people are versatile enough to master the context of more than a couple of mediums. Broems may have evolved due to the peculiar constraints of Linkedin’s publishing system. Ditto for tweet chains. So to be equally well versed across a range of media will either need a small team or someone with truly versatile meta-cognitive ability.

This difficulty is because it is easier to mould the figure rather than the ground. The ground is not malleable enough to be changed by a single person, although collectively, a group of people can change it. Users can influence functional changes in the platform on which they converse.

Besides, for individuals, there seems to be more than just the cognitive load of maintaining contexts. The medium also seems to affect a person’s thinking. After having written exclusively on Linkedin for a couple of years, it took effort for me to stop using the ridiculous two-sentence paragraphs when I switched to writing on this blog. The structure that worked so well on Linkedin posts, feels like textual stutter on blog posts.

So perhaps in thinking of the figure and ground, we must also include a third, human element – the messenger or the recipient. Meaning, think of it as a communications trifecta. Like two triangles resting against each other to form a diamond, influencing each other in a continual feedback loop.

This constantly shifting environment makes it harder to determine the context in which the message will be received. Which means that even market-minded brands like Tanishq with huge resources have trouble determining exactly how their messages will play out to its audience.