Surprise: You’re the New Medium

So get ready for your parents to complain that if you really loved them, you’d keep the snap streak going. -David Pierce, “What Lies Ahead” (Wired, February 2017)

The content of the new medium is the what? That’s right: the old medium. Of course, in the digital age, what the hell even is the old or new medium? To quote Douglas Rushkoff quoting some lady off of an NPR call, “everything is everything.” The internet has subsumed all media and funneled them into your palm or lap. In fact, some have argued that the computer can only be thought of as a metamedia, not a medium in itself (I don’t think they’re referring to McLuhan’s conception of a metamedia). I’m sure the readers of this blog will have a few intelligent rebuttals to such an argument. But the point remains, ours is an epoch of dizzying multimedial dimensions. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, “FOMO is the dizziness of having fifteen different social media to choose from and/or keep up with.” Not as elegant but just as true.

If you’re familiar with Snapchat, you’ll know that it’s an image sharing social media app whose value-added quality is the fact that the images auto-destruct like secret messages sent by clandestine organizations. You have anywhere from 1 to 10 seconds to view an image, and then poof: it vanishes into the nowhere of the cloud. (This would be a good place to suggest Googling “Snapchat antitrust violation suits” lol). Young people use Snapchat religiously. It’s generally considered a kind of anti-Instagram. People purposefully send silly or stupid pictures of themselves, un-filtered, un-doctored, ugly, etc. Snapchat is about being real with people. We should remember, however, the inimitable Slavoj Zizek’s warning: “[We should never] believed in the emancipatory gesture of ‘let’s tear off the mask’… the true mask is [our] ‘authentic/real’self” (watch the short video here). In other words, people are never more fake than when they are sure everyone around them is interpreting their behavior as “natural” or “real.” This is the classic problem of socio-psychological survey research. It’s hard to catch people in their “natural” state. And Snapchat is the social media equivalent of telling people straightforwardly, “okay, just act natural.” So of course, no one is acting natural. 

Let’s switch gears for a moment. Remember Google? Their whole business plan is basically something like this: make the internet into a massive laboratory for consumers to crawl around like digital rats… sell results to corporations. In this fun Web 2.0 world, you are the content of the medium. Google is selling you, your search “habits,” your interests, and so on. This is true for the rest of the larger social media as well. Facebook runs experiments on you and sells the results to companies just like Google does.

Back to Snapchat. In the quoted article at the beginning of this post, David Pierce reminds the reader of Snapchat’s new toy product, “Spectacles.” The idea is simple. They’re glasses with high-definition video cameras embedded in the end pieces (reminiscent of Google’s failed Google Glass project). You put them on, and you can capture your life in real time and with your own perspective! It’s the stream-of-consciousness revolution in literature, except it’s digital. But the amazing thing about it is that you are now the medium. You are wearing Snapchat, broadcasting yourself to your followers, but also broadcasting Snapchat itself to the real-world around you. Anyone wearing the glasses is advertising Snapchat to everyone who can see them IRL.

Surprise: you’re the medium.

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About the Contributor

James Ogden Sharpe

James Ogden Sharpe is a black belt from Texas pursuing a Bachelor's in interdisciplinary studies combining anthropology, psychology, and media studies. Were the world's economic, social, and political edifices not crumbling, he would study literature or photography or spend more time at the movies. His work has appeared before many professors and has been generally well-received--in the B+ to A- range. 


  1. Howard Wetzel says:

    Fun fact: 2/3 of all internet ad revenue comes from Facebook and Google; the evidence suggests their experiments on us not only work, but make them money. All new media are meta-media once they reach environmental saturation because they absorb and transform the content of earlier media (remember McLuhan’s comment: “Obsolescence never meant the end of anything.”) and indeed, entire cultures, that is the Global Village. Users are always the ultimate content of the medium they use, which is not the same as the messages they send using it. The medium seemingly uses its users for its own ends, unless the users are quite deliberate and critically aware – unless all the users are artists, Pound’s ‘antennae of the race’. The ends of print, now painfully apparent in obsolescence, were abstraction, detachment, sequential bias, and private identity (or individuality, if you prefer). The ends of the digital era seem to be holism, involvement, synchronicity, and corporate identity. The swing from one cultural pole to the other is quite awkward and even painful, except for the young (at the present rate of change, only the newborn) who always gravitate best to the present ground. Much of the present social instability is caused by the rapid changes in the media environment. If you look at the ends of both print and digital media, it would seem that a healthy society needs a stable social balance somewhere between the extremes of detachment or involvement, and private or corporate identity. But we will not stop innovating long enough to master our media in a stable context, and instead find ourselves adrift, anxious, afraid, and vulnerable to the chimera of isolation, protectionism, and violence.

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