The Medium is the Message


According to the latest empirical studies, I can write what I want after the first 160 characters of this message because no one has an attention span longer than……well that is of course not true but maybe in a couple of months it will become reality. The medium Internet as well as the use of mobile phones have a strong effect on how we communicate and therefore they determine different things of our behavior such as our attention span. One indicator will be discovered by just watching how people browse the Internet. A lot of different tabs are opened and they click true this tabs as they were swerving with their car thru the heavy traffic of the streets in Manila or New York, whatever fits better to your imagination. Watching them not staying longer on the tabs as a couple of seconds or sometimes a minute already gives us an idea about their attention span .. and that in some years from now these people might not be able anymore to read a book. Ever.

What are the technologies we are using?

Twitter. Twitter is strictly limited to 140 characters. It can include a link but because it is meant to just briefly give a statement or update, I am not sure how many people really click on the link or if they just read the tweets.

Facebook. Walls posts and status updates are not very long. I would say between 100 and 300 characters in average. If you add a link, the title of that article and some information, a teaser, will already been shown. Only if that is convincing you might click the link to read a full article.

Blogs. Blogs contain more characters. However, compared to real news articles they are – most of the time – shorter. Can be read in maybe 1 – 5 minutes. Concluding other articles and news as already digested. Comparing blogs to former sources of news also reveals that they got shorter.

Text message. Text messages on the phone are limited to 160 characters. Even though you are able to – depending on the phone you are using – just add text messages by continue writing, the number 160 is shown in the display and is in the minds of the people. Abbreviated words have been a subsequent development of trying to stay within the 160 characters limit and not having to pay for more text messages.

Marshall McLuhan once wrote: ‘the Medium is the Message’. So what do this medium and the recent development tell us about the message?

It tells us that we do not want to spent a lot of time to figure something out. If we read something it has to be already digested so that within a very short time we can absorb it. Unfortunately, this means that we do not really questions what we read because therefore we just lack the time and the unmediated background information.

It tells us that we are always in a hurry. We do not want to take time to thoroughly read or write about something. A short notice about what we are doing, a 140 chars update on what happens at the conference and we are done. It not only has to be on time, in real-time, but also to be fast so that we can do other things.

At some point it might tell us that we are not able anymore to digest heavy information such as a book or an entire newspaper. Our attention might be so adjusted to the maximum of 500 characters that everything exceeding it is not covered by our ability to critically think and digest things anymore. The implications for PR amongst other things are obvious.

The message is: ‘quick and dirty is en vogue’. The message also is: ‘quick and dirty is all we can’.


  1. Not advocating going back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of course, but do you have thoughts on how to remedy “the medium is the attention span”?

    One thing I’ve noticed is that while the ability to digest longer form material is lessened by some of social networks/technologies, the ability to have a conversation has improved from the 1994 .gifs and text web…and alternate mediums, such as doing an audio or video version of a longer form written post, has actually helped.

  2. This is a challenge of the ages, and one that is best met with exacting diligence, creative copy, something after that, another something, you aren’t reading anyway … so some more stuff here … and here … and then the punchline.

    It’s like sex and bacon!

    So, there you have it. Use a few words to interest them, get to the sex and bacon quickly, and hope they tell all their friends.

    Of course, there is the much more involved method of carefully creating a well targeted demographic and psychographic model and delivering precisely what they were looking for.

    Perfect targeting is an increasingly important factor. When you do it just right, even people who do not expect to shift their attention will do so. I see this every day when a good number of readers will spend oven an hour on my blog with a ten minute average per page. The other ones matter, too, but just not so much. 😉

  3. @Joe
    Even though I see where you are coming from, I beg to disagree, slightly. It might enhance our ability to have coherent conversations and discussions – and there, I am with you – but these discussions are of poor quality.
    What I mean is this: Due to the lowered threshold of embarrassment (and risk of getting punched in the face) people’s language gets more insulting, violated and plainly stupid. Obviously, a not small amount of people thinks that in cyberspace you can write/ say whatever you want. This is also reflected on Facebook walls etc.

    What we can do about the attention span problem? Well. If we are aware of the problem it helps to read actual e-/books without checking Tweets and Posts every three minutes. Focusing on long articles, books or essays will in the long run increase your attention span, because the body is adjusting to what you are doing. Another solution might be to decrease multi-tasking. Recent studies have shown, that multi-tasking makes you accomplish more things in the same amount of time but the quality of the results suffers badly. What I do for example is to open only one or two tabs at a time. I go to Twitter, do all my stuff there and then proceed to another page, without switching all the time. However, I am not a psychologist with specialization in whatever field is required so… just my 2 cent and observations.

    I agree there. Sometimes it leaves us with knowing the ‘bacon’ but not where it comes from. Pig? Bird? Soy? No idea, but I know exactly how it tastes and what I can use it for to make myself an awesome breakfast (j/k, bacon fits ti every meal).
    People read the digests and then share it with their friends. No problem here. It is just about losing the ability to digest information yourself. If you don’t know what to do with a decent article, following the arguments, understanding the background and making your own – sometimes different from the author’s – conclusion – that is not good.

    Of course, the people who matter to me are also those like you, who not only read the complete article but also think about it, digest it and come up with answers, comments and questions. However, it would be great to have more people doing that – converting the digest-read-further-tweet guys.


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