Back in 1967, Marshall McLuhan concluded, "The medium is the massage."
Electronic mass communications had begun to move beyond simple messaging (not to mention "massaging") even then, with a flood of information and images saturating virtually every aspect of daily life. From the graphic coverage of Vietnam streaming into America's living rooms, to the battle for control of the car radio (Beatles or Frank Sinatra? Rolling Stones or Mantovani?), our culture became immersed in, shaped by and—for better or worse—forever changed by the ceaseless flow of sounds, pictures and data.
Forty years on, the high-speed wonders of the digital age make the technology of the Apollo era seem quaint. A rocket? How Jules Verne!
We've pushed so far past the saturation point that a new aphorism is needed to describe our relationship to the current media landscape.
Three words come to mind: We're all media.
A lack of understanding about the true depth of consumer immersion in today's media may pose the biggest threat to communications efforts from Hollywood to Madison Avenue.
Traditional tactics fall short in an age when mass media no longer exist, in a world where the media become fused with the masses on a landscape that is becoming as personalized as it is fragmented. Consider that we use advanced electronic devices to work, play, buy, keep in touch with friends and family, learn, comment and express our creativity.
Connected by earphones and touch pads, we've become receivers and transmitters, feeding into and downloading from the vast databases that underpin our lives. These interactions turn each of us, as individuals, into nodes on a vast global network.
As a Web site editor tasked with tracking marketing, media and advertising, the circle—or circuit—seems complete.
We've moved far beyond e-commerce, news gathering or communications. What we're really doing is creating and refining a reality that exists both onscreen and in the physical world.
Portability heightens the effect. Wireless accessibility is becoming more prevalent, available everywhere: at home, work or school, riding a bus or train, hiking, biking or driving down the highway.
We are, in the truest sense of the phrase, "plugged in" all the time, sending, processing and interacting with the digital world as we go about our daily routines.
For some, these digital realities have become more stylized and compelling than the "real world." Hence the proliferation of blogs, personal e-zines and specialized online communities, where the most scandalous personal information becomes instantly available for public consumption on a global scale. (I'd wager that the rise of reality TV is due in part to the fact that it is the form of traditional televised entertainment that most resembles blogs.)
The development of highly personalized entertainment (delivered via targeted, one-to-one messaging) seems the best course of action for the media giants. That said, it's difficult to properly tailor content to a single age group or demographic, let alone individual customers immersed in their own unique media realities.
Taken to its logical conclusion, we may one day all have unique multimedia channels, in sync with our individual interests and tastes, carrying content we're constantly helping to create. These channels will require sponsors: "Today, (your name here) is brought to you by Ford—tomorrow by Apple." Companies would technically sponsor content, not people's daily lives. But in a world where we're all media, such distinctions are largely irrelevant.
All those PC, videogame and MP3 screens also serve as mirrors, reflecting our interests, hopes, fears and obsessions. After all, there's no brand-driven image or story as captivating as our own.