The Medium is the Message

I am a late bloomer when it comes to social media — a late adopter of the Facebook craze and a total non-user of the Tweet. Come on, do my “followers” really give a rat’s hind end if I’m about to head down to the man-cave to watch Monday Night Football in my boxers? Is anyone’s life so interesting that it must be tracked 24/7? Okay, perhaps the exception is that dashing hero of the Dos Equis beer commercials.

My daughter shamed me into updating my cell phone so I could text with the appropriate dexterity of a trained chimp and receive pictures of her spending my money as she enjoys the semester “studying” in the UK.

The novelty of Facebook was evident the first time I hooked up with Gilbert, the skinny kid who sat in front of me in Mrs. Cunningham’s history class at Kennesaw Elementary School. The fact that I had neither heard from nor thought of Gilbert since the fifth grade made prospects of hooking up for a night of reminiscing at Dixie Speedway, the local dirt-track, not so appealing. But it was quite clear that the power of social media was upon me. Anyone that I had zero desire to hear from dating back to grammar school could now troll for my profile.

As my horizons within the world of social media broaden, you can imagine the wonderment I beheld experiencing my first online flash mob. My sweet Aunt Bea tagged me with a YouTube video back around the Christmas of ’09. I was dazzled as one, two, three and then hundreds of Dickens-clad youngsters waltzed through Central Station in Antwerp, Belgium, belting out the Sound of Music to a crowd of unsuspecting train commuters. Oh my, what a wonderful use of social media I thought!

But what used to be a fun time where groups of people would arrange to meet in public places at an allotted time to perform well choreographed song and dance routines has morphed in something sinister. This summer, around the country, we saw young hoodlums use social media and other forms of mobile communication to coordinate acts of mayhem and violence. The new age of flash mobs took on the warped form of mob robberies and shoplifting events — and worse.

In Chicago, tourists and residents alike were attacked by youth mobs along Lakeshore Drive’s beaches and bike paths, and even along the ritzy downtown shops of the Magnificent Mile, where “flash mob shoplifting” had some renaming the venue the “Mug Mile.”

A July 4th celebration in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights saw approximately 1,000 young people violently disrupt an Independence Day event. Police report that the young people used social media websites to mobilize for the event.

And perhaps two of the most disturbing incidents this year occurred in Milwaukee and Philadelphia. At the Wisconsin State Fair in August, hundreds of African-American youths attacked white fair-goers. Just before midnight, groups of teenagers and young adults attacked patrons leaving the event. Some were beaten as they walked; others were pulled out of cars and off motorcycles. In Philadelphia, more than 2,000 black teens fought in the streets, beat innocent passersby, vandalized cars and ran through a shopping mall. The Philadelphia mob events were so unnerving that the city’s mayor called in help from DHS and the FBI to help monitor social media networks. He even scolded parents in a passionate address to the black community to take responsibility for their children’s actions.

Experts say that this increased violence in flash mobs-gone-bad is a mixed bag of mob mentality, pent up frustration of the under privileged and the anonymity of the internet itself. Mobs can access their networks with real-time messages through their smartphones. And they say it will get worse.

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, the brilliant Canadian educator, philosopher and scholar. McLuhan’s theory is that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

What sort of message are we receiving via social media today?