When I was in grad school at the University of Missouri (refusing to become a Tiger fan, especially when the Sooners were in town), I learned some stuff that was useful and some that was not.
One of the useful things was that often “common sense” is more of a personal perspective than a common one.
I learned this one night when I was out getting a beer with a newfound friend from New York City. At one point on the drive home in his convertible, I asked him what he noticed most when he came to Missouri.
Without hesitating, he said, “The sky. I never got to see the sky growing up in Manhattan. Too many tall buildings.”
For me, however, it was the trees and hills that caught my attention. We didn’t have that many of either in Midwest City when I was growing up.
So here we were, both in the same new state now and yet seeing it differently because of our backgrounds. You might say because of our tribes.
I learned some other useful things from a guy I never met but came to know through readings. His name was Marshall McLuhan and he was this quirky (at the least) Canadian English professor who became the darling of the media world when he started weaving into soundbites all these neat pronouncements about us and television in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among McLuhan’s more famous lines were, “The medium is the message,” and my favorite, “The medium is the massage.”
The first thought connotes that the media that bring us the messages are just as influential to us — maybe more — than the message itself. The second thought suggests that the media don’t just deliver messages; they take hold of us, shake us up, and leave us in a different emotional or mental state than when they found us.
Additionally, each different media form massages us in different ways. We can read about a traumatic event like 9/11, following the thread of trauma from one thought to the next and forming a mental and emotional opinion. Or we can watch that same event on television and become instantly and emotionally rocked. Television delivers not just a message but all the jarring shock of the experience itself.
McLuhan also had a lot to say about the tribes that the new media — as he knew them in the 60s and 70s — were creating. These observations composed some of his best “flips” of thinking. For example, he said the original media forms of writing created a literate society of humans who could come together in a common place, socialize and trade a wide variety of perspectives and ideas.
But the “new media” of television (and he later added rock music) split that community into bits and pieces, creating a myriad of tribes often within the same family. Each member would pursue his or her own interests and traditions, and even speak their own language in a way.
In short, he said the mass media were sending us back into tribalism.
Some of McLuhan’s ideas have not panned out as the decades have passed, but this one about tribes has. Whatever McLuhan envisioned to be true about TV creating new tribes has become exponentially more true when it comes to the Internet and especially those sites we call social networks. By this very name, sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are tribal-forming.
We may call members our “Facebook friends” but we could also call them our tribe.
For years now, I’ve been wondering if the mass media area in which I teach has moved beyond that description. There is nothing really mass about a person’s Facebook site which consists of a select few, like-minded people. I have something like only 30 Facebook friends. But even accounting for one of them who has 1,400, that still doesn’t fall into the “mass” category.
We’re talking tribes here; we’re talking personalized media and not mas media. There are a lot of plusses to that for those of us so mobile that our tribal members are scattered all over the country. But we also still need that central pool of information, knowledge, and awareness that is found in what we would now call the traditional media of newspapers and television.
In other words, it’s okay for me to look out there into the Missouri night and see the trees and for my friend to see the sky as long as we both know those are only parts of the whole and that there is much more to learn and discover about this new place we’ve landed.
To help meet that goal, maybe we should go buy a newspaper.