When the Medium Throttles the Messenger: The New Web and Media Literacy

Both of the readings assigned for today discuss the impact of media as opposed to their contents, and the new relationships between media, creator, and consumer. Olia Lialina’s “Vernacular Web 2” spends time on the relationship between amateur internet users and their personal websites as a medium. Lialina further explores Web 2.0’s the new focus on creation through services. User profiles and ‘memes’ followed identical forms not out of necessity, but a willed uniformity. With the average understanding of the inner makings of their web diminishing, the amateur web user is now within the confines of social networks and (at one point) glitter generators. The conceptual convergence between these limitations in the face of a more powerful and commonplace Web and the effects of ‘electric media’ as examined by Marshall McLuhan in the excerpted “The Medium Is the Message” struck me. Together, these pieces acknowledge an unawareness among those who consume media more advanced than print of the changes in their experiences and lives brought upon by the changes in how they consume and create media.

In his argument, McLuhan sees a rapidly technologically advancing Western world leaving behind one unsightly condition for another. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, McLuhan establishes the cultural homogeneity of France and the United States and explains how the high literacy the printing press enabled developed it. Foregoing the “discontinuity and unpredictable quality of English culture” (15), which oral tradition had built, these two nations instead laid the foundations for one that emphasized a uniformity by way of print as a medium. So, before the onset of ‘electric media’ as McLuhan puts it, the West rewarded individual adherence to a staunch set of standards, defined by literacy. This system left no space for versatility, and could hardly be inclusive. The electric transfer of information and the ‘literacy’ it entailed, however, serves to destroy this system. In essence, every person in our culture is now equally unequipped to healthily consume its media. In McLuhan’s words, “we are as numb in our electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture” (16). It seems that we are hurtling ever-so-fast toward a future with indeterminate standards for consumption and the delivery of information.

“Vernacular Web 2” introduces this concept on a smaller scale. In its earlier forms, those literate in traversing the Web (and with the means) could utilize it. Those literate in the languages that make up the Web could create pieces for it. HTML was the medium and the websites were art. Then, as the Web lost some of its democratic nature to commercialism and steeper learning curves, sites provided services for creation. As the average web browser grew stronger and average internet connection faster, the possibilities of expression for the average web user grew nowhere. As all the “‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 8), the web now seems to be a hub for video, music, and text. Less often are web sites media that convey messages by aspects inherent to their design. 9 years out from publication, many of the aspects of web culture Lialina observes are far less present, like the clunky remnants of the amateur Web of the nineties on user profiles of the aughts. Are web users, as consumers and creators, far past that McLuhanian end?

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