Posted by: Paul Jenkins | February 12, 2008

An Introduction to Social Media

-Marshall McLuhan-

It has been said that the development of social media is the most significant revolution in the history of the world – one of them, at least.

The moniker, social media, describes media:

  • Blogs like the one you’re reading now, public diaries
  • Podcasting, portable on demand broadcasting
  • Wikis, collaboratively produced opinion

And, social applications:

  • YouTube, your home to every sort of video-recorded entertainment
  • Facebook and MySpace, networks of people

To name just a few.

Said succinctly, social media describes the capabilities available to humanity as a result of our new digital age.

Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times journalist, Thomas L. Friedman, explained last year in The World is Flat, that “blogs have given people a chance to stop yelling at their TV and have a say in the process.” In other words, social media empowers the individual. More dramatically, he argues:

It is always dangerous to declare a turning point in history. We always tend to feel that when we are alive something major is happening. But I am convinced that [our digital revolution] will be remembered in time as one of the most important turning points in the history of mankind – one no less significant than the invention of the printing press or electricity. Someone had to be alive when it happened – and it happens to be you and me.

Of course, the revolution has been going on for some time. By 1962, Marshall McLuhan, of “the medium is the message fame,” observes:

We are today as far into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographical and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of society and experience. Whereas the Elizabethans were poised between medieval corporate experience and modern individualism, we reverse their pattern by confronting an electric technology which would seem to render individualism obsolete and corporate interdependence mandatory.

McLuhan’s first thought is the foreshadowing of our current revolution. His second is its possible manifestation as interpreted in the context of 1960s and 70s North America. H is inaccuracy in predicting the outcome is striking – the precision with which he is wrong, where individuals have been crowned kings and queens of their existence, instead makes corporate interdependence obsolete.

Interestingly, the godfather of public relations, Edward Bernays, made the same mistake as McLuhan. Writing in 1928, the former is just more condescending:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society… In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

Not surprisingly, this excerpt is from a Bernays’ gem called Propaganda. It’s easy to see why public relations has a bad name.

Writing in 1962, popular pornographer, Henry Miller, was similarly reticent about placing faith in in the hands of individuals. He’d probably be open to changing his view, as in his words, it doesn’t really matter.

No one believes in his heart that the world situation can be righted. Everyone is waiting for the great event, the only event which preoccupies us night and day: the next war. We have unsettled everything; no one knows how or where to reach for the control. The brakes are still there, but will they work? We know they won’t. No, the demon has broken loose. The age of electricity is as far behind us as the Stone Age. This is the Age of Power, power pure and simple. Now it is either heaven or hell, no in between is possible any longer. And by all indications we will choose hell.

Scary shit. Instead, your very awareness of social media is step one in your emancipation into our new digital world. Our technology’s true power, however, will not be found by philosophically debating its possible applications, but by putting ideas into action.

For individuals to truly win the revolution and prove that McLuhan, Bernays and Miller’s man has been shot, social media must become truly social. It must be manufactured to serve our collective mass and directed to respond to the world’s injustices. Social media is a worldwide conversation. It is an enabler and each of us is at the controls.

For public relations to be helpful in this endeavour, it must become more honest. The digital revolution has made possible cheap, effective, targeted and measurable communications. It facilitates two-way conversation and encourages sincere connections – so much so that our digital platform and its social media operating system seem specifically designed for my new profession.

I’m starting this blog as part of a class called, Online PR. I update it every Friday at 3 p.m. Please add your thoughts below.



  1. Since your post talks about power, I’ll use that language.
    I don’t think that social media will change power structures that much. Some people have more influence (power) than others, just like everywhere else.
    It changes the rules for how you acquire power, and those who figure out how to exploit those rules to the greatest effect will come out on top.

    I’m actually not that cynical about the subject, just thought I’d play devil’s advocate.

  2. How exactly will incorporating Web 2.0 tools as part of your Public Relation make PR more honest? A recent in-class guest suggested that
    organizations that engage in meaningful on-line conversations with both critics and supporters are making a good start in this direction.

    But, let’s not forget, in this age of the “brand”, the “brand identity” and “identifying with the brand,” it’s all about consumption and driving sales, isn’t it? That’s my cynic talking!

  3. The digital age gives a voice to individuals who have never had one before. It has created an overwhelming amount of information that if properly organized, as it is becoming, allows people to learn the consequences of their actions. Some might not choose to act upon that, but for the first time ever it is within their capacity.
    Rick, as you noted, any effort is going to demand leadership. But like it or not, all conversation is now two-way and yes, symmetrical.
    Public relations practitioners are challenged with the responsibility of facilitating conversations on behalf of their clients. The sky is the limit in terms of how this will manifest itself, but only transparent organizations with little to hide can face such public scrutiny.

  4. Your blog is a great medium to stir contemplation and expand awareness.

    Narcissus in myth couldn’t stop looking at his own image and this is the way I have come to define bloggers; at least, in my limited experience reading them.

    Your social media blog appears to me to be a modern medium to stir debate, much like, Abbey’s, Monkey Wrench Gang. I suppose the blog is more widely available.

    Concerning Thomas Friedman declaration that the blog is a turning point in history maybe naive and cliche. He assumes social revolution came about on its own, as if in a vacuum, without the influence of countless factors; if its here or not, do we need to define revolution at a single point?

    Anyhow, it sure is tidy.

    I would say the most significant turning point was the written word and the fact that we can agree to recognize pattern to determine meaning. The rest was growth.

    Someone shortly will declare that the world’s most significant turning point was cloning or will be virtual sex.

    Anyhow, I applaud any action that attempts to relieve societal injustice. Kudos to you for getting me to think about this topic.

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