What Does Your Medium Say About Your Message

 Aug 19, 2015    by Kristin Timm

This post originally appeared on May 30, 2013 and is part of our throw-back series.

Communication theory was one of the most thought provoking classes in my graduate education. As we uncovered a new theory each week, it was like someone was pulling back the layers of everyday life and human interactions, and I could begin to understand some of the processes driving each one. As in any field, there are some theories that are much easier to see and apply than others. One that I have been thinking about a lot lately is Marshall McLuhan’s theory of Media Ecology.

Outside of Aristotle, communication theorists are a pretty obscure bunch. McLuhan, however, was a celebrity academic. During the peak of his career in the 60’s and 70’s, he published several books, was on radio and talk shows, and was even interviewed for Playboy. He worked with Andy Warhol (pretty cool for an academic, right?). This doesn’t necessarily mean his theories were any good—there are plenty of criticisms of McLuhan’s work.

But if I learned anything about communication theories, it often doesn’t matter whether they are robust or a bit more on the abstract side—they provide useful lenses for looking at and thinking about the communication problems in the world and our everyday lives. In the process of creating communications about climate change, barely a day goes by when I don’t think about McLuhan’s theory. It can be summed up in his quote, “the medium is the message.”

Think about that for a moment.

McLuhan suggested that the medium, or theway you choose to communicate is the message—they are one in the same. So even if you use the exact same words, if they are on a billboard, in a tweet, or spoken to the person next to you on the airplane—they are all essentially different messages. Each will be interpreted differently. This seems obvious to me now, but in several years of working in environmental and science communication I gave little thought to exactly how the method I chose for communicating would affect how my message was ultimately interpreted.

McLuhan actually went so far as to argue that the medium is more important than the message, because it is required to carry the message and the message cannot exist without it. As strategic climate change communicators, we cannot just focus on the content—especially in a world with so many possible mediums. It would be impossible to use them all, and it would be ignorant to select just one without thinking about what it has to say about our message.

I feel that in many ways, climate science has previously been dominated by many formal mediums of communication—the peer reviewed paper, the public lecture, the PBS special, newspapers, etc. These mediums might suggest that a certain level of education or sophistication is required of an audience in order to truly engage in a conversation on the topic. These mediums all have a place, but what do they say about our messages? Serious? Educated? Expert? Expensive?

In the climate science community, I feel that we need to think about more approachable mediums in order to promote discussion with a broader audience. An interesting story by the Guardian in January of 2013 describes the ways that scientists are using Twitter to talk openly and casually about the funny, embarrassing, or frustrating things that happen when you do research. My workplace, theScenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning (SNAP), uses scenarios planning to present climate models and guide people to imagine and articulate the various ways that climate change can affect their communities and resources. The stories that people create in scenario planning workshops are funny, imaginative, and engaging.

We can probably all agree that climate change is a serious topic and serious challenge for mankind. However, these mediums might lend themselves to messages that are creative, hopeful, realistic, human, and engaging for a wider audience.

Information is important, but we must also consider the ways in which we communicate. The mediums we choose can make our messages more or less accessible and interesting to particular audiences. There is a $9.99 all you can eat buffet out there of mediums to choose from, and the only way to find out what you like is to try it. I’m not the most proficient Twitter user, but the best advice I ever received was to, “just start tweeting.” It’s incredible the conversations I have engaged in and the users I have met (virtually and in person) since then. There aren’t many well-defined norms for climate change communication, so as communicators we have an incredible opportunity to grab a plate, pick a few mediums, and find what suites you and truly engages a new audience.

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There are so many different ways to communicate. How does your choice of method affect how your message is interpreted?