1. What does the technology enhance or intensify?
2. What does the technology displace or render obsolete?
3. What does the technology recover that was previously lost?
4. What does the technology produce or become when pushed to an extreme?
For example, the mobile phone enhanced the voice; made the telephone booth obsolete; recovered the act of shouting in public as children tend to do; and when pressed to an extreme becomes a leash to which people are constantly tied.
As an exercise in understanding, I have--in reverse order--applied McLuhan’s tetrad to toward illustrating how the effect of Facebook on society has been much less revolutionary or transformative as it has been amplificatory.
What does Facebook produce or become when pushed to an extreme?
Even though this question is meant to be reflected upon hypothetically, the answer is not far from reality. In June 2013, the U.S. National Security Agency became embroiled in a scandal over leaked documents about a top-secret government surveillance program called PRISM, which has been in place since 2007. The purpose of the program, which reportedly had the cooperation of technology giants like Facebook, Apple, and Google, is to monitor foreign communications that pass through U.S. servers. However, most of the media attention has been on the ability of the NSA to use PRISM to obtain direct access to the personal online data (i.e. emails, photos, chats, documents, Google searches) of individual U.S. citizens.
So, when taken to its extreme, Facebook becomes an Orwellian “Big Brother” network of surveillance. The major difference, however, is that citizens would have the ability to monitor each other. Although individuals can currently monitor each other’s behaviour on Facebook, it is only as a result of voluntary Friend-making. If taken to its extreme, every citizen’s Profile would be viewable to everyone in society, a situation which could cause users to delete all of their photos and status updates, and closely scrutinize their Profile on a regular basis. Thus, the paranoia associated with being under constant surveillance in the real world might certainly be exhibited online, perhaps with greater intensity given the amount of time individuals have become accustomed to spending online while in their homes. However, retreating from Facebook might result in social costs, examples of which can be seen today. Moreover, as other SNSs gain in popularity and become the dominant means of social exchange, any citizen who retreats from them may incur losses in social capital. From the self-proclaimed “informed-citizen” who, Twitter-less, suddenly finds himself as the last person to learn the latest news; to the industry professional who, after denying hundreds of requests to join LinkedIn, is looked upon as out-of-touch and unapproachable; to the grandmother who, unwilling to use a webcam, sees her faraway grandchildren once a year instead of daily or weekly through video chat.
What does Facebook recover that was previously lost?
McLuhan’s popular phrase, “global village,” describes the effect of new technologies (television, radio, telephone) in bringing once fragmented people over vast distances much closer together. Like a village, a global village is where you could learn about people and events thousands of miles away as if they had just happened down the street. Going on this concept, Facebook recovers a tribal sense of community because of the direct access to people, including friends and family members, regardless of their location in the world. Moreover, through the use of smartphones, this idealized community can be brought with us and accessed anywhere there is an Internet connection, which makes family members, friends, groups—or neighbourhoods, in the old-fashioned sense—more relevant in our daily lives.
Another thing that Facebook recovers is a tribal version of democracy by allowing anyone in the “village” to participate in the public forum. As Robert Klotz pointed out, the Internet allows individuals and groups to be “everywhere but nowhere,” and even the most powerful leaders cannot completely control the flow of electronic information in, out, or within their nations. In his book, Blogosphere: the new political arena, Michael Keren observed that the blogosphere provides a sense of freedom from the reins of government and business, in which falsehoods are exposed and civil concerns are freely expressed without manipulation from above. In other words, as blogs and SNSs like Facebook become more salient, it provides citizens with a sense of victory in that the “truth” is getting out.
What does Facebook displace or render obsolete?
From the perspective of communication technology, it cannot be said that Facebook renders anything obsolete. Rather it reduces the use of certain communication tools that are still important. Facebook also reduces the significance of traditional media, and gives a voice to everyone. As a source of news and information, it reduces the top-down model of mass communication. The Web campaign in politics is a good example of how this now works. Klotz argued that the Internet allowed for low accidental exposure to a candidate; audience discretion in choosing when and what communication to receive; interactivity on the mass level; and unlimited time and space—forever changing the way candidates conduct their campaigns. For example, announcing one’s candidacy via online video instead of to a news anchor, and creating an official Facebook Page has in recent years become an important part of kicking off a campaign. It is an effective strategy that allows candidates to deliver their message without the immediate follow-up questions one would receive at a press conference. It also allows for tight scripting and editing, so the message should be exactly what they hope to get across compared to the uncertainty of a live announcement.
What does Facebook enhance or intensify?
During a period in which the conventional “rules” of using SNSs are still coming together, it would not be appropriate to conclude that the widespread adoption of Facebook has resulted in drastic changes in human behaviour. In the case of SNSs like Facebook, I think McLuhan is correct in his widely cited argument that people use new forms of media to supplement—not replace—older forms of media. Rather than having transformed human behaviour, Facebook has been treated as an extension of everyday life, and in my study I have provided empirical evidence to support this perspective. One’s Facebook Friends, for example, are an extension of the phone book or rolodex. Facebook not only extends the ability to communicate and unite with others, but also the ability to track them down in the first place. Facebook also enhances the voice in that it enables one to express their opinions and feelings to a large audience in a way that is akin to using a megaphone to communicate a message for anyone who is nearby to receive. In addition, all of the messages that one broadcasts on Facebook are automatically archived. In this way, it is also an enhancement of the diary or journal and by extension enhances one’s ability to recall previous thoughts. In fact, Facebook’s new Timeline format is set up in a way that encourages people to document their lives in a diary-like interface, beginning with a clickable Now button, followed in descending order by 2012, 2011, and so on until Born. Therefore, uploading pictures of a party to one’s Timeline while at the party so that one’s Friends can view it and provide feedback can be seen as enhancing one’s appreciation of the experience.
So, in applying McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects to the use of Facebook, we see that Facebook is merely an extension of established communication technologies—it has not obsolesced any of these technologies; and it has not completely recovered a tribal sense of community or democracy. Facebook, then, is simply another system for delivering information to one’s peers.