By Naomi Freeman.
Have you ever been in one of these meetings?
“There’s no point in setting up Treebook. We already have Instasnap!”
“My niece is on Treebook though. Did you see it in Money Times Mega Magazine?”
“I heard it’s trending on the Grapevine.”
Someone senior cuts in: “Intern, please research the options. We’ll revisit this on the 30th.”
How do we evaluate the differences between all these new social media products?
What exactly is the intern going to be evaluating anyway?
In 1964, a Canadian fellow named Marshall McLuhan wrote a bunch of things about media. “The medium is the message” is one of his more famous aphorisms you may have heard.
He also argued that all media are just extensions of ourselves: cars become a space we use to extend ourselves. We gain awareness of its space and capabilities as if they were our own.
Every technology extends or enhances our capabilities. Facebook enhances our ability to socially connect over distance. Lights enhance our ability to see in the dark.
This is the first of four principles McLuhan presented as a framework to evaluate technology, long before social media, Super Bowl ads and the iPad.
His framework is a concept called the Tetrad. It is a framework for examining the effects of any technology or medium.
The idea is to create a more comprehensive understanding of the artifact (medium, technology) and its surroundings. It’s a process of asking questions – historical, technological, and sociological.
- What does any artifact enlarge or enhance?
- What does it erode or obsolesce?
- What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
- What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?
Given that all technology is first an extension of ourselves, these questions are vitally important in evaluating the differences. The things that we lose with the new extension will point us in the direction of what we will desire to have next.
It is important to consider these questions simultaneously – not as cause and effect or in some chronological order. These 4 effects are all happening at the same time.
For example: let’s consider the mobile phone:
- It enhanced interpersonal communication and response time for communication.
- It obsolesced phone booths, but along with that and the phone in the home, it obsolesced much of the privacy of a phone call. Even further than that, it has in fact obsolesced many of the “deep” conversations we had when we were focused just on speaking on the phone.
- It retrieved cameras, oddly. Who would have anticipated that giving us acoustic enhancement would actually result in Instagram?
- It has reversed into letter sending, really. Most of our social media, texts, etc. are actually the exact opposite of what a phone is meant to do: allow users to communicate acoustically.
For every technology this is going to be a bit different, and for sure my list on this one isn’t definitive. You can play Tetrad with any technology from a multiplicity of perspectives and disciplines for hours, days, weeks. Please do feel free to discuss this one further! I’ve only done a quick overview to give you a taste of how to approach the framework.
As you can see, there is a relationship between these tetradic elements.
This is about to get a bit thick, but come with me.
Retrieval is to obsolescence as enhancement is to reversal.
What is brought back must also render something obsolete; what is enlarged will always do so at the expense of others.
We all famously know the “false promise” of Facebook’s connecting us simultaneously creating isolation through both the insularity of the communities it creates and the curation of our lives.
It also brings back tribal community connections – there is no “disappear to NYC and reinvent yourself” like an 80s movie without your aunt Marcie, that hot girl from high school and 2 guys you met on a train 6 years ago like your “Welcome to NYC” profile pic.
This internet forum age of anonymity has been rendered obsolete by these tribal villages and our quest for brand management zen: curating the perfect You Inc. portfolio online.
The other part of the relationship is this:
Retrieval is to enhancement as obsolescence is to reversal.
What is retrieved is an outgrowth of the enhancement. What is obsolesced creates opportunity for reversal.
In the Facebook example, the isolation of staring at a screen alone for social contact creates an opportunity for reversal: we see it in meetup.com – a community that aims only to set dates and times online for people to meet in person.
This is the online sociality taken to its extreme and reversal.
In doing so, it in fact retrieves the very thing it obsolesced in the first place (meeting in real life) but does so in this “new medium”.
In another example you might be less familiar with, we have Flixel.
This is a technology that creates “living” photos – the photos are taken as a video, one frame is grabbed and held still like a photo and then an element of the photo keeps moving, like an earring or some grass flowing in the breeze.
What this technology is doing is retrieving the motion of video and television, through an extreme outgrowth of the enhancement of the medium: a photograph.
So how can we apply this to our everyday work?
Another way to consider the problem of comparing technologies is this: what is the consequence of the technology we’re launching or considering for use?
For the mobile phone, the consequence of this new way of communicating using acoustic space was actually a return to sorts of written letters (texts) that can be sent without invading others’ acoustic space. It also, oddly, retrieved photography as a popular way to communicate.
For Facebook, the consequence of creating communities of real people you know with your real name were other technologies that allowed anonymity and privacy online (like secret.com) and technologies that allowed you to meet-up in person (think Tinder, meetup.com). These were the things Facebook was originally in fact sweeping the table of. This really illustrates the pendulum swing you can observe through the Tetrad.
Back to how we apply this in the real world. Inside of a business, it is important to embrace these consequences to allow growth.
Shopify is an ecommerce platform. Their business is to let businesses operate completely online.
Curiously, two years ago, they used the pop-up shop model to create a storefront on one of Toronto’s busiest shopping streets.
It may not have been conscious or intentional, but in setting up this brick-and-mortar space, Shopify was in fact embracing the furthest extension (inversion and reversal) of the very business model it made successful.
Rather than insulate themselves and commit to their success model, they in fact were able to embrace the very thing that could have been their undoing. Rather than allow the consequence, the extreme of their model to allow a space for another company, they leveraged it to bring more business to their already successful model.
In terms of choosing social media, consider the farthest outreach consequence of the technology. It can be used as a predictive tool to understand what your customers will desire next. In the meantime, you can evaluate the differences between potential technologies by understanding what each is missing, the extreme consequence of where one can go and if that’s somewhere you want to follow and what complementary technologies already exist to balance what it is doing. In that way, you can make smarter choices about which 2-3 platforms or apps you want to be on. There are already ecosystems out there. Using the Tetrad framework and questions can help you follow the lines and understand how these technologies are out there working together.
As for those starting new businesses, if you’re not in at the ground floor of an innovation, my next best suggestion is to find its inversion to start.
Google is automating cars – you know what niche needs filled once it booms?
Nostalgia will retrieve classic, human-driven cars – obsolesced by the automated version, these will become a masterful artwork to be coveted, much the way poetry chapbooks are.
Can you fill one out for Virtual Reality?
An important thing to remember with the mobile phone is the change in context. Many of the changes occurred because the space in which we could use the technology changed, and this resulted in all kinds of behaviour and usage change.
The point in using the Tetrad is really to change our question from “what does this technology do” (click a button – add a friend) to “what kind of context change does this technology create” (sitting inside alone to communicate vs. sitting in a coffee shop) and “what is the furthest consequence of this technology”.