This semester in COMP 300: Society in the Information Age we’ve been discussing our changing world and the shifting perceptions brought to us with the addition of technology. In a previous session we examined the Information Age through the lens of Marshall McLuhan’s teachings. McLuhan was a leader in the field of media theory and communications. Though long dead at this point, his methodology for examining any radio ad, television series or new technology has allowed academics and media theorists to discuss the effects upon society as a whole.

The reason that McLuhan’s work has lasted was his blanket approach to addressing technology’s impact on society. Instead of discussing the sales of a particular product as a result of a popular advertisement, instead he examined how that ad touched upon our desires, wants and cultural norms. He separated each example from time and space, looking it as an archaeologist would, giving each medium the designation of cultural artifact. That approach remains viable to this day and would allow you to measure current technological advances such as the success of a viral video as a function of what emotions or societal effects it addressed.

McLuhan’s most useful device is the tetrad, a pedagogical tool designed to understand the transformative effects of a particular cultural artifact by  looking at how it increased or decreased specific cultural patterns or brought back things that were lost in our society as a result of new technology.

Specifically, McLuhan’s tetrad asks:

  1. What does the medium enhance or amplify in our culture?
  2. What does the medium obsolesce?
  3. What does the medium retrieve from earlier civilization or society that was previously lost?
  4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes? (this answer almost always carries a negative connotation)

In class we wrote out the tetrad for the cases of radio, television, the internet. For example, radio retrieved the use of our sense of hearing for information delivery, something that characterized pre-literate times. Another example: the internet enhances our abilities to redefine our geographical boundaries based on interests and identies in the same way that nationality arose with the coming of print culture.

This brings us to the application of the tetrad to another disruptive technology: Twitter. No one can argue that Twitter has completely shifted the way that we use the internet but also what makes up the internet. It seems that very few people have applied McLuhan’s theories though in an effort to explain the ways in which we as a society are now different as a result of Twitter. There are a couple examples of people who have applied the tetrad to Twitter (here, and here) and while I agree with some of their observations I mostly disagree with the specific application of the tetrad without considering the broad applications of the technology for society as a whole.

To truly examine Twitter’s effect on our lives we have to take a step back and view it as its own cultural artifact. It’s not enough to say that Twitter enhances our ability to connect with people all the time. Saying that Twitter makes CNN’s Breaking News Alerts obselete also understates the importance of Twitter. Instead we have to pull from what makes society the way it is, take our origins and our predictions for where we’re going. Questions like “what does this say about our society as a whole” or “what  comment does Twitter make on societyas a people?” are more salient questions than the specifics of how Twitter is being used. As one of Neil Postman’s laws of technological change (#4 to be exact), technology does not make a additive difference, it makes an ecological one. So applying the tetrad to television does not yield answers based on how people use television but how society is different because of television. This is what McLuhan meant when he said his most famous quote “the mediums is the message,” that it is not important what people are watching or how they are watching but the mere fact that they are watching television that changes the society.

To stave off further verbose explanation, here’s the Twitter Tetrad. Again, it is important to note that while there are many answers to these questions, the answers are not “Twitter helps everyone connect with everyone immediately” or “Twitter helps you learn what your friends are doing” . This tetrad is designed to help us understand how Twitter actually has changed society.

1. What does Twitter enhance or amplify in our culture?

Twitter enhances our ability to cement the boundaries that we’ve begun to redraw on the internet. It does this by allowing us to live in communities of our own borders, different than nationality (which arose because of print technology), surrounded by like minds and interests. We come closer to “living” in this new community by understanding how those with shared interests and beliefs really live rather than just joining each other on websites and forums to discuss our similarities.

2. What does Twitter obsolesce?

Twitter obsolesces editorial content completely by painting a picture of what is actually happening right now. Twitter also removes traditional media as the authority and source of facts and up to date information.

3. What does Twitter retrieve from earlier civilization or society that was previously lost?

Twitter retrieves the ability to be an authority based on “power of voice” rather than traditional pedigree, something that was present in oral tradition. Twitter also retrieves our ability to memorize short passages to repeat orally as a transmission method for information and then knowledge.

4. What does Twitter reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

Twitter’s all-information, all-the-time, from everywhere on the globe, helps us stay connected everywhere but reverses into a collective hive mind of our buzzing thoughts. Disconnectedness and isolation is the product of the oversaturation of the channel: high fidelity but information dilution brought to you by sheer numbers of faceless thoughts passing through the medium.

Please let me know what you think about Twitter’s effect on society as a whole.


  1. APN

    I put myself through a self-taught course in communications theory during my Senior year of college. When I should have been studying Spanish 3 & 4, instead, I was reading through the vast majority of the written works of McLuhan and Postman.

    I do tend to agree with what you are proposing in terms of Twitter as an active member of media culture (since the word “artifact” sounds a bit “archaeological” in connotation). Having sat in on a few blogger panels at various music conferences in the past few years, adherents to “old media” are foisting upon Twitter the same claims they hurled at bloggers. The claims run the gamut from: there are no editors; there’s no one there with a professional degree dictating content; there’s no one to provide objective analysis about any given event, and (last but not least) there’s often no way to generate income for web content.

    Both McLuhan and Postman would have dismissed the claims of Twitter/blog contrarians as contradictory and counter-intuitive. In a post-Enlightenment, post-modern Information Age, people really could care less about objectivity/subjectivity (just check out your average poll on Fox News). We all have our trusted “traditional” media sources, all of which have their own, readily apparent internal biases. With Twitter (and blogs), we have the chance to read an unending stream of content that we can individually choose to follow. We can choose our own “tribes” in which to participate, complete with our own tribal leaders, medicine men/women, sages, rabbis, dreamers, leaders, thinkers, and doers.

    Twitter as a “cultural artifact” is designed to be one of robust communication. In fact, it’s current tagline is “What’s Happening?” which, to me, is designed to encourage users to talk about what’s going on in their worlds – AS IT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING. To me, this makes Twitter, no matter what the haters might say, one of the most invaluable media resources of the 21st century.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

  2. Have you seen Clive Thompson’s “In Praise of Online Obscurity”?

    With regard to #1, Thompson cautions, “Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote.”

    With regard to #2, generally users are re-broadcasting “traditional media” not generating original content, right?

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

  3. matthew


    I hadn’t read Clive’s piece before you mentioned it. Here is the link to it for anyone else who would like to read it:

    These seem to be relatively new problems that we’re dealing with, microfame, social network exhaustion. I wonder whether these same situations existed when we had only phones and letters to communicate. In Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody he mentions that Charles Lindbergh would not let anyone else write his fan letters and of course, he never got to all of them.

    Maybe this is where ghost writing becomes more important? Can you imagine paying someone to maintain your twitter account for you? Conversing with your friends to maintain relationships? Scary.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

  4. Michael Powell

    I know someone who’s part time job it is to twitter for a minor celebrity. And actually, I read a story about Randy Jackson at American Idol who’s assistant twitters for him and made some recent newsworthy misstatement, something about grammy voting.

    Matt, I’m glad to see you’re getting into social analysis here. I’m not sure if McLuhan’s scheme totally works, but it’s certainly interesting.

    One cultural element I find interesting about Twitter is the very irony of its name. “Twit” is a “silly, annoying person.” And I can’t imagine this self-deprecating reference escapes anyone on the network. It seems like Twitter users are much more aware of their McLuhan-ian frame than most media consumers–including being well aware of the drawbacks of Twitter and the critiques leveled at Twitter users. All those layers of reflexivity and irony seem to be a kind of “innovation” in the media world, because the technology itself doesn’t seem like an innovation.

    Posted February 2, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

  5. matthew

    Adam, one of the things that I believe is really rankling the naysayers about the loss of objectivity/subjectivity in some ways due to the explosion of community based tools like Twitter, Wikipedia and others it that it breaks down our concepts of authority. When anyone can empower simply with their voice, the necessity of pedigree for designation as an expert is removed. As Clay Shirky mentions in his book “Here Comes Everybody” experts are a designation assigned when those fulfilling the jobs are scarce due to entrance cost. Now that we can form our own tribes and listen to our self-chosen leaders, these previous experts have to be crying foul and questioning value of information. We’re living in extraordinary times as this old model is in the process of breaking down. New models will emerge that either factor in expertise or set standards for terms like blogger, critic, and expert.

    Posted February 6, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

  6. matthew

    The self-deprecating reference to “twit” seems to be the biggest argument against Twitter for those who don’t use it or for those just starting to use it. As Adam Newton mentioned in an earlier comment, the ability to form our own affinity groups, communities of practice and “tribes” is what I believe is the main factor for Twitter’s heavy usage. Once you realize that you can post content of value and share on a human level, Twitter opens up to you as do the people who are using it just like you.

    I also agree with the first half of your last point, the “…layers of reflexivity and irony seem to be a kind of ‘innovation’ in the media world,” but disagree with the second half. I do believe the technology is innovative because it gives real-time reports on the state of the world as delivered by people. This is the same reason that in the middle of the decade you used to read the NYTimes and then go to Google News to see what was socially most important in the news. Twitter and trending analysis represents the real-time equivalent of many of yous reading Google News in the “popular” category.

    Posted February 6, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

  7. Interesting post. I have a few comments, and you are probably already aware of them, but since I haven’t posted on your blog before, I thought now was as good a time as any, plus the topic strikes on a few personal interests of mine, namely speech, language and human development. Firstly I should say a thing or two: 1) I don’t use twitter (or not nearly as much as some people thing I should). 2) I’m something of a Luddite, meaning I don’t share a certain degree of techno-fanaticism that some other members of my generation might have (don’t get me wrong, I’m a high-tech guy, I just don’t think it will save us) and 3) I’m not terribly familiar with McLuhan’s treatise on Media. That being said I do think that a hard look at twitter is worthwhile, and that some of the issues you raise are really compelling.

    What I’m gonna touch upon the most here is the question of how we choose the tools that we might need to find or decode a cultural artifact.

    I’m not sure who’s idea it is (Wettergreen’s or McLuhan’s) that to study a Cultural Artifact it must be separated from space and time, when in fact, to suss out an object’s cultural relevancy it is exactly the opposite. And more to the point, the meaning ascribed to one object can change over time in the same social group (The Bible’s a good example here) or change completely from time to time (Stonehenge might come to mind where we have a very different meaning of those rocks than their creator’s did). All of this is to say that the meaning behind any object is highly relative and if one’s trying to find a “original meaning” or “essential meaning” the analysis must usually be invested with as much understanding of the particular space and context as possible.

    Now, all of this becomes even more complex when one is talking about a social phenomenon — something with its own dynamics that exists across several time periods and involves hundreds of thousands of people. Something of this complexity it would seem to me, is hard to fit into 4 nice boxes of McLuhan’s Tetrad. And rather that try to see what twitter does, or does not do to a given culture, essentially a “What” or “How” question (What are the cultural effects of twitter? How has it changed society?), we should look at the question of “Why is there Twitter?” My issue with the “how” and “what” questions is that they already presuppose that twitter is new, or radical, or different, which in fact may not be true, or at least not true for a certain segment of the population.

    I think starting from the position of “what can twitter show us about ourselves” might lead to some interesting conclusions and might show that fundamentally it is not all that different from other means of mass communication, it is essentially broadcasting at a small scale. But broadcasting has been around for a long time, smoke signals might be seen in this light to have been early forms of tweeting. Anybody with an Amateur Radio licence could “tweet” in Morse code to whoever around the globe was tuned into a specific frequency…So what is in fact the difference? Is it the text? Is it the openness, the low-playing field?

    I actually have a different idea that I think would have been quite shocking to McLuhan. More than simply too complex for his tetrad, I think twitter is more of a product than producer of our media. There is a distinct body of research that confirms elevated levels of dopamine in our brains, specifically the amygdala, when we humans engage in cognitive activities related to communication. The gist of the research is that we like, we REALLY like to talk. And this should be no surprise. But chemically, we love to communicate, and for the most part we’re addicted to it. Twitter feeds right in to this chemical equation. So the bad news for those who begrudge other tweeters is that its out of your control, this is chemical addiction you’re up against. The good news for faithful tweeters is that Twitter is almost certainly not the end of the line for micro-broadcasting. After-all we’re the “speaking ape.” It’s what we do best, and 140 characters just seems too short…

    Posted February 11, 2010 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

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