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The Mechanics of Media – Love Your Work, Episode 300
Every message is shaped by the mechanics of media. Whether it’s a tweet, a TikTok video, a news article, or a movie, the characteristics of the medium determine how it’s made, how it’s consumed, and whether it spreads. If you understand the mechanics of media, you can more effectively communicate in a wide variety of mediums, and protect yourself from being manipulated by media.
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The message is the mechanics of media
As media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” In Understanding Media, he wrote:
The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium…results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs….
In other words, it’s not the content of the medium we should be worried about, but the way the characteristics of that medium determine its content – the mechanics of media.
The five characteristics of media
I propose that there are five characteristics present in any medium, which determine these mechanics. These characteristics affect the creation, consumption, and distribution of media. (In other words, what message is delivered, how that message is received, and whether or not that message spreads.)
Those five characteristics are:
The mechanics of media are so complex, these characteristics naturally interact with one another. I’ll give a brief introduction of each, then show how these characteristics work in the popular mediums of podcasts, Twitter, and TikTok.
The Incentive characteristics of a medium are sources of motivation, whether money or otherwise, that shape the creation, consumption, and distribution of messages in that medium.
The creator of a piece of media is motivated by various incentives, such as money and relationships. Whether or not someone is able to consume a piece of media depends upon whether its affordable or otherwise accessible. Whether or not a piece of media spreads depends upon whether incentives are aligned for the distribution platform to allow it to spread.
So, a journalist may be motivated to write a story that gets page views, because that’s how they’re paid. That’s how they’re paid, because the newspaper doesn’t have paying subscribers and thus relies upon ad revenue. The stories with click-bait headlines spread and get more page views because they increase engagement for the social media platform they’re shared on, which increases the social media platform’s ad revenue.
The Sensory characteristics of a medium are the ways in which the medium engages senses such as sight, hearing, and touch. Marshall McLuhan wrote about how so-called “sense ratios” were engaged by a medium. Sensory characteristics primarily affect the consumption of the medium, but those effects overlap with creation and distribution.
Written content, for example, can be absorbed at a reader’s own pace. As Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the written word is especially well-suited to careful review and comparison, which makes it easier to convey the truth. Audio content can be replayed to be reviewed, but it’s more work than simply moving your eyes back over the content.
The Physical characteristics of a medium are the ways in which the medium engages the body. The subtitle of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media is Extensions of Man. As a medium extends our abilities, it also removes or “amputates” abilities.
When you listen to a podcast, your entire body is free to do other things. You may be cooking, showering, or fighting your way to the exit of a crowded subway car. So, audio with dense content may not be absorbed as well as if the same content were printed in a paper book – which can still be read on a subway car, but not likely while walking. Podcasts became distributed more widely as they became easier to download on smartphones, which people physically carry around.
The Social characteristics of a medium are the ways in which the medium facilitates interactions amongst people. In the age of social media, these interactions affect creation, consumption, and distribution, in concert.
Algorithms that drive distribution on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are designed to distribute a piece of content based upon its engagement. Much of that engagement is social. If you comment on, like, or share a piece of content, that social interaction leads to further distribution.
Additionally, the level of privacy involved in consuming or sharing content has social consequences. You may be reluctant to even “like” certain content, for fear of who might see. But you might share the same content with a close friend through a text message – so-called “dark social” – or even a dinner conversation.
The psychological characteristics of a medium are the ways in which a medium interacts with human psychology.
Cognitive biases affect the way people interpret a piece of media, and media platforms are designed to exploit these biases. For example, variable rewards make social media platforms habit-forming for both consumers and creators. You never know when you’ll find something incredibly valuable during a social media session, and as a creator, you’re always checking to see if you’ve gotten more comments and views.
To go back to our example of a journalist paid by the page view, incentives may motivate them or the newspaper at which they work to cover more natural disasters, shark attacks, and terrorist attacks, which grab people’s attention as a result of the availability heuristic.
Here’s a sampling of how these five characteristics shape various mediums.
There are two main ways podcast creators make money: either have a lot of listeners and sell sponsorship, or have few listeners, but make money on some kind of “back-end” business. It’s very hard to get new listeners for a podcast, for reasons that will be clear when we analyze the other mechanics, so this motivates many podcast hosts to do “swaps,” wherein hosts interview one another on each other’s podcasts.
Many listeners listen to podcasts alone, through headphones. Audio can’t be rewound as easily as someone can re-read, so the content should present simple ideas with simple language, and storytelling can keep the listener engaged.
Listening to a podcast doesn’t engage much of your physical body, so listeners may be doing nearly anything while listening. They could be driving, showering, or doing household chores. With AirPods, they could even be hitting golf balls. Listeners may be in distracting situations, so again, the mechanics of the podcast medium lend themselves to simple ideas presented through simple language, and strong storytelling.
A podcast host makes an intimate connection with a listener because they’re often talking right into the listener’s ear, often while they’re alone. In this way, the host becomes like the internal monologue of the listener. This is part of why there are so many podcasts despite it being so hard to attract new listeners. This intimate connection can attract new customers and clients for high-ticket items, and advertisers are willing to pay a lot per listener, especially when the host reads the ads.
It’s hard to attract new listeners to podcasts, because podcasts don’t lend themselves well to social consumption and distribution. Podcast listeners are usually physically occupied when listening, and unlikely to engage through likes, shares, and comments. These features aren’t available in most podcast-listening apps, since podcasts are distributed through decentralized feeds that can be captured by one of many such apps.
Podcast content can be several hours long, with the information presented in the disorganized form of a conversation. Even when pieces of a podcast are presented as clips on social media, there are a few formidable barriers to such clips attracting listeners: Editing long-form content to be interesting in short-form is difficult, audio content has trouble competing with other content on social media feeds, and social media is often consumed in contexts in which it’s not convenient to download and listen to a podcast.
Podcast producers take advantage of the ways in which audio content can affect the psychology of the listener. Narrative podcasts use music and storytelling to manipulate listeners’ emotions and build suspense and engagement. Compelling podcast interviewees know how to talk passionately and persuasively in a way that will excite listeners. Still other podcast hosts deliberately speak in an unpolished way, to make their shows feel more like listening to a friend.
On Twitter, journalists can build followings, which can help them get more page views, which can help them either get paid more, or not rely on their employers at all. Entrepreneurs can grow their businesses. Writers, such as myself, can test out ideas. People, generally, can be entertained, or feel as if they’re heard.
Twitter is still primarily an ad-supported platform, so more engagement with the platform means more ad revenue. While I presented above an example of a social media platform presenting articles with click-bait headlines, the incentive characteristics of Twitter also work against this. If you were to click on a link, you would leave Twitter, where you could no longer be served ads. So tweets that are just links get less distribution.
Twitter is primarily text, which is supposed to be the form of media most-capable of communicating the truth. Yet anyone who has used Twitter has noticed there is a lot of sensational content, with lots of arguing and fighting amongst tribes. How can this be?
Since Twitter is mostly a collection of snippets of text, which can be easily skimmed, it puts people in a “hunting” mode. Unlike reading a book, where the sensory experience locks you into the progression of ideas presented by the author, on the Twitter timeline, the sensory experience is like scanning the landscape for the gazelle in the grass, or the tiger in the bush.
Many Twitter users consume its content on their phones. They’re looking at their hands, often slouched over with neck craned downward. This is a posture that makes you more close-minded and negative, as opposed to say, standing up, with a monitor at eye-level, and shoulders back while typing on a split keyboard.
Users can be in a variety of settings, such as on public transport, or even crossing the street. On Twitter, consumption and creation can be physically the same, which lends itself to off-the-cuff and often reactionary or poorly-thought-out content. So content creators on Twitter who do the majority of their thinking away from the app, and put intention into their creation process, are essentially practicing attention arbitrage.
Twitter has followed the lead of platforms such as TikTok, and decoupled the distribution of content from the follower relationship, in lieu of a feed driven by engagement or relevance of topic. Still, the number of followers greatly influences distribution on Twitter. Thus, savvy Twitter creators know they have to be active “reply guys” – replying to tweets on related accounts – until they gain a following.
Besides followers and the ever-more-rare retweet, the biggest driver of distribution on Twitter is replies. Therefore, tweets that drive conversation get more distribution. Ironically, if a tweet is clear and factual, it won’t get as much distribution as if it is unclear and controversial. So, creators who are either unintelligent in a lucky way, or savvy and machiavellian enough to feign ignorance, see great distribution through “fake takes,” or expressing with great confidence a simplistic opinion people will argue over in the replies.
Almost all activity on Twitter is public by default, so this creates a media environment with a bias toward behavior that’s either prosocial or tribal. There can be social consequences for merely following someone or liking one of their tweets. There’s a lot of what Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification” on Twitter, to signal that one is part of a tribe. The only characteristic that counters this is that expanding a tweet or media within a tweet is private, so this private engagement can help somewhat the distribution of content people may not be comfortable supporting publicly.
Many creators are attracted to TikTok because it’s a platform where it’s possible to have a lot of success very quickly, and seemingly for no good reason. You can get tens of millions of views just dancing in front of your bathroom mirror. TikTok is an ad-supported platform, so the platform distributes content that will overall increase the time spent on the platform. Yet TikTok overall has a more-positive vibe than Twitter. We’ll get to why.
If the sensory experience of Twitter puts the viewer into “hunting” mode, the sensory experience of TikTok is more like the campfire. You’re not skimming a vast sea of text. Instead, you’re immersed entirely in a video – at least for a moment. You’re often face-to-face with a person talking. It’s harder to get angry with someone when you’re looking right at them. This campfire instead of hunting experience makes content on TikTok more positive than on Twitter.
But you’re not immersed in that video for long. Users can quickly swipe and be immersed in the next video. So, there is a lot of pressure for creators to create content that grabs the attention of the viewer. It’s not unusual, when looking at an engagement graph on a TikTok video you’ve created, to see a note informing you there was a drop in viewership at the one second mark.
This is part of why TikTok has a reputation for being all about looks. Indeed their new “Bold Glamour Filter” reshapes women’s faces to an astounding degree (yet they still have nothing for my gray beard hairs).
TikTok, like all social media, is primarily consumed on a mobile phone. So consumers may be in any of a variety of settings, including highly distracting environments where they don’t have control over sound. So, TikTok videos present simple ideas, presented quickly, and videos with captions perform better, as viewers may have audio off.
However, there is some incentive for creators to present complex data associated with their simple ideas. If you flash a data-rich graphic in a TikTok video, viewers will try to pause it, which is a signal of engagement for the TikTok algorithm. You’ll do even better if the graphic flashes so quickly it can’t be paused the first time. The viewer will have to let the video play again, to once again attempt to pause at the right time.
@davidkadavy Time multiplying helps you create more time. Credit: Rory Vaden #timemanagement #timemanagementhacks #timemanagementskills #xkcd ? original sound – ???David Kadavy
Since pausing or rewatching a video signals engagement to TikTok, dance videos have performed well on the platform. Consumers can become creators and post “duets”, in which they perform a dance next to its originator. Of course you have to watch the video many times to get your dance moves right, which signals engagement. This physical bias towards dance videos, helped along by the social characteristics of TikTok, may also contribute to its more-positive vibe.
Like anywhere many humans congregate, there is still some negativity on TikTok. But if you’re going to be explicitly negative, you’re going to have to show your face. Comments are limited to 150 characters. Beyond that, you can make a reply video, a “duet” – such as in dance videos, or a “stitch,” where you place your video at the end of the video you’re responding to.
Because simple videos that viewers re-watch get more distribution, videos on TikTok resist the sense of closure humans have been used to since at least the time of Homer. If you summarize what you’ve covered at the end of a video, your engagement will drop and you’ll get fewer views. So videos don’t have the satisfying end we’re used to. Some creators make their videos “loop,” wherein the final thing said connects to the first thing, which hypnotizes the viewer into watching again.
This being an article, it’s not bad for me to take the time to present a conclusion. That’s my overview of what I believe to be the five characteristics that shape the mechanics of media, and how those mechanics shape the mediums of podcasts, Twitter, and TikTok.
The next time you’re creating something for a medium, or feeling highly-persuaded by a piece of media, take time to think about the five characteristics that shape the mechanics of media.
Image: Painting 1930, by Patrick Henry Bruce
Thank you for having me on your show!
Thank you for having me on your podcasts. Thank you to Rachel Roth at The Rachel Roth Show.
As always, you can find interviews of me on my interviews page.
This is the 300th episode of Love Your Work. Something I haven’t asked in years: Can you please rate the show on Apple Podcasts?
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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »
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