The Difference Between a Technology and a Medium
And how this informs our relationship with the social internet.
If you’ve been a reader of this newsletter for any amount of time, you know Dr. Neil Postman is important to me, particularly his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, as it is even more relevant today than it was when it was written in 1985. I love finding interviews and lectures from Dr. Postman from the late 90s (he died in 2003), because he, naturally, began to comment on various internet technologies that Amusing speaks about in unintentionally predictive prose. Unfortunately, Dr. Postman died before any modern form of social media came to be, but much of what he said in Amusing and in interviews/lectures about the new “information superhighway” in the 1990s can be applied to our present social internet.
I recently stumbled across a lecture by Dr. Postman that he gave in 1997 at the College of DuPage, a community college in the Chicago suburbs. The lecture is called “The Surrender of Culture to Technology.” You can find it here.
Technology v. Medium
At the beginning of the lecture, Dr. Postman distinguishes between a “technology” and a “medium.” He says:
A technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it is given a place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts. A technology, in other words, is a machine, a piece of hard wiring. A medium a social creation.
With [this distinction] in mind, we can understand that how a technology is used by any particular culture is not necessarily the only way it could be used. For example, if we asked the question, “How does television affect our politics,” we have to understand that we are not asking about television as a technology, but as a medium. There are many places in the world where television, although the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium than that which we know.
This seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Technology is the tool, the device, the hardware, if you will. Medium, or its plural “media,” is the cultural position of a particular technology. A television is a technology, but television’s place as a medium varies from culture to culture and from time to time.
Let’s briefly explore how this technology v. medium framework can help us better understand how we see the social internet and the social media therein.
“Social Internet” v. “Social Media”
I use the term “social internet” in this newsletter and in my writing generally because I think it is helpful to think of the whole internet as social, not just the apps that come to mind when you hear “social media.” In fact, this distinction, between the terms “social internet” and “social media” sort of aligns with the distinction between technology and medium.
Calling this phenomenon the “social internet” is my attempt to get us to think about these platforms as technologies that have a technical purpose or agenda or goal for their users. When we think of these technologies simply as “social media” we think only about how we use them without considering how they were designed. In one sense, this distinction doesn’t matter because we are using these social media platforms in the way they were intended. But in another sense, it is important for us to understand that underneath “social media” is “social technology” that has a purpose and a goal for its users (you and me).
The Technology of the Social Internet
The technology of the social internet are the platforms themselves. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, etc. These are the technologies of the social internet. On a more base level, the code and the artificial intelligence that power the algorithms and feeds of these platforms are the technologies of the social internet.
These technologies are not neutral. They have a bias, and I’m not talking about a political or ideological bias. They have a use bias–there is a way these technologies are meant to be used. Instagram is not meant to help you change a tire. TikTok cannot do your taxes. Facebook cannot fold your laundry. These technologies have an agenda (again, not the political kind), and they have a particular way or ways in which they are meant to be used. We will explore this agenda aspect of the platforms in a future newsletter.
The technology that makes up the social internet is pretty similar across platforms, even if the different platforms seem quite different. Their code is all unique, to be sure, but the purpose of the code is quite similar. Where the diversity comes is with how these technologies morph into media.
The Medium of the Social Internet
This is where the “social internet” transforms into “social media.” Social media, from a technical perspective, is the content you consume on Facebook, Instagram, or the like. The platforms, the technologies, are the stage, and the media is the performance.
Every platform is built to host a particular kind of act on its stage. Instagram’s stage is made for images and short videos. Facebook’s stage is meant for a wide variety of content, to stretch this metaphor, Facebook’s stage will suppress any act that tries to turn your attention elsewhere—a link to a YouTube video posted to Facebook will get the ol’ Vaudeville hook. TikTok’s stage is made for short video acts. You get the idea.
The medium of the social internet is also more than just the content that fills the stages built by these technologies. What places have these technologies taken in our culture? Think about all the ways Facebook (and its sister company Instagram) has infiltrated relationships and how we spend our time every day. Think about its impact on mental health and geopolitical phenomena, like the way it was hijacked by Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election or how it was used to incite violence in the genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar.
This is Facebook as a medium. This is how the technology is being used on a global scale. Oh and horse memes. Can’t forget about the horse memes.
The Difference Matters
It is really easy to get caught up in the media of the platforms we use. This is our default mode, to simply consume the content of on our screens and not think about the inner workings of the technologies that deliver us the content we love to consume.
Thinking of our social media platforms as technologies first, that generate and become media, can go a long way toward helping us see them for what they are. We think of our favorite platforms more in terms of what they do for us than we do what they do to us. Sadly, we are often too enamored with what they do for us to care much about what they do to us. When we see our favorite social media platforms first as technologies, we may begin to be able to think more deeply about them as formative forces in our hearts and minds.