Web Rhetorics for a Digital Age: The Medium AND the Message

By Jason Snart, College of Dupage

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan coined this now-famous phrase. It first appeared in his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

But what does it mean?

Basically, McLuhan was arguing that instead of focusing just on the content of something—like the words that make up what you are reading or listening to right now—we also need to focus on the means by which those words are made available to a reader or viewer.

So if you read McLuhan's famous phrase in Understanding Media, the "means" of communication, or the "medium," is the printed page.

For this essay, the "medium" is the Web.

Consider how a printed page in a book is different from what you usually find on the Web. You can probably think of many differences right off the top of your head—probably more differences than similarities!

What McLuhan wanted us to think about, though, is exactly how those many differences actually shape the meaning—or meanings—that we derive through the act of reading. In other words, how does the medium shape the content?

What's amazing is that McLuhan published Understanding Media in 1964, decades before the Web, instant messaging, blogs, Facebook walls, texting, and the world of digital communication that we are familiar with today.

Why the medium matters

What McLuhan identified in 1964 as the importance of the medium of communication, and not just the content of that communication, is certainly truer now than it has ever been. This is thanks in large part to the sheer number of media we have available to us.

What we want to focus on here, though, is exactly what this diversity of media means for you as a writer. Specifically, we will focus on "the Web" as a medium, although this one medium actually contains any number of sometimes quite different opportunities to communicate in writing, both formally and informally. I'll refer to these various opportunities as "writing" or "rhetorical" situations.