Now that Twitter is going through its death throes at the behest of a narcissistic multi-billionaire with a penchant for “hardcore” employees and delusions of species-saving grandeur, it may be time to take a good look at what the platform provides (provided?) and what what that medium—and its implosion—teach us about rhetoric. Verified accounts on Twitter no longer mean anything. The infamous blue checkmark that used to be a status symbol has become a worthless commodity available to anyone for a meager $8. The even more-illustrious grey checkmark, used to denote official accounts for government agencies, has simply vanished. So has the platform’s reliability.
Hallmarks of trust and reputability have been stripped from the platform. Contentious bad actors previously vanquished because they propagated misinformation and incited violence have had their accounts reinstated because a public poll showed users voted to bring them back. Twitter has become a free-for-all of information where truth and credibility hide.
The new CEO of Twitter says he bought the company because he wanted to protect a vital public forum for debate and discussion, and he thinks everyone should have equal access to the platform, regardless of the harm they might cause with the tool. He forgets, for whatever reason, Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message,” and he’s allowing the rhetoric of messages to blind him to the more critical rhetoric of the medium itself.
By examining the in-process implosion of Twitter, I will explain how, as McLuhan claimed, the medium is the message, and how mediums rely on rhetorical situations and strategies just like messages do. In short, I will explain why the medium is more important than its content and demonstrate how rhetoric influences the medium itself. Along the way, I’ll refer to rhetorical theorists and media creators to examine examples not just on Twitter but also in visual, textual, and material design.
Unpacking the Quip
Below, I will provide specific examples of how these ideas work. But first, I want to address the issue of McLuhan’s famous line and provide an interpretation of its significance. With “the medium is the message,” McLuhan asks us to consider what a medium conveys apart from its content. McLuhan looks specifically at the medium carrying information before attending to the information it carries. That was important for him to do. McLuhan lived at a time of exciting advancements in electronics that drastically simplified information exchange and drastically expanded the reach of mass media.
Sure, what he faced pales in comparison to the proliferation of platforms available to us today. But that just makes his insights more valuable because we can examine them in a simpler, clearer context. When McLuhan says that movies started out as just repurposed stage shows, we don’t have to consider streaming services, distribution rights, or encoding formats. To be sure, each of those aspects of delivery creates additional layers to unpack. But focusing on mediums available in the electronic age makes McLuhan easier to follow and understand. Once we see his point, then we can pull it forward into our own situation.
Presentations as Medium
For example, think of entering the back of a lecture hall. Inside, you see a podium up front and a screen lit by a digital projector displaying a typical title slide. Without considering the content of that slide deck, just by glancing at the medium used—digital slides with accompanying spoken commentary—we get a wealth of information. We learn things that are—and here is McLuhan’s point—more important than whatever the speaker says.
We perceive that the speaker has something important to say, that the slides are going to help us focus and possibly organize the information, that the dais and podium support someone prominent, and that our job is to listen and absorb, not to interact or debate. Significantly, we are told that the speaker’s material is worth listening to just because of the medium that speaker uses. That arrangement sets us up to receive the content and allows the speech to be successful. That’s the message we need to hear: This talk will matter. The content can only follow a message like that.
And for contrast, consider the same room but without the projector and slide. The front of the room contains only a single microphone on a stand, highlighted by a spotlight. There’s no stool, no podium, no notes, and no visuals. The medium of single-performer spoken word tells us to pay more attention to the words because we won’t have graphics to look at. It tells us to expect a constructed narrative from a competent performer. We learn, from the medium alone, something about the skill and material we can expect. That knowledge allows the content to land and gives the performer a starting point of credibility by default.
Print as Medium
Consider letters sent to you by governmental agencies. Whether they come from the IRS, the DMV, or any other acronym-named agency, the officialness of the letter itself carries weight and meaning. We attend to the letter’s contents because of the medium. Who writes letters any more? Who uses a Courier typeface after the 1980s? These agencies use more classic approaches and features to bring to mind stability and authority, which encourages compliance. Whatever the letter contains can only be of secondary importance to the fact that an agency sent you a letter. That’s the primary message.
Or think of an assignment sheet used in a classroom environment. It has a certain look to it that’s designed to let readers know it comes from an authority and is a set of instructions that shouldn’t be (or cannot be) questioned. The message, according to McLuhan, is that students must do whatever the assignment sheet instructs them to do. The actual instructions, then, are relatively inconsequential.
Or what about the last book you enjoyed reading? The fact that it was a print book primed you to settle in with it—in your favorite comfy reading spot if it’s a smaller novel-sized text or at a studious desk with a sprawling surface if the book is larger-format and designed to be pored over. These differences might at first seem slight or inconsequential. But they determine how we use, interact with, and process the content of our books.
The Design of a Medium
It’s clear that items in a specific medium are intentionally designed. Publishers make books a certain size to make it obvious how to use them. Agencies write letters to look official before anyone starts reading. Buildings are designed with auditoriums that make it clear where the audience’s attention should be and whether to expect dialogue. Design works within a medium to help it convey its message. Looking at examples of such designs will help reveal what McLuhan saw back in the 1960s.
The Message in Visual Design
Jenae Cohn, Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley, examined the effects of visual rhetoric. She looked specifically at marketing and social posts related to the restaurant industry. Things we so often take for granted today—Yelp reviews and Instagram posts—have a deliberate, crafted influence on our thinking. In “Understanding Visual Rhetoric,” Cohn says that, “if we limit ourselves to words in our arguments, we may not successfully reach our audiences at all” (p. 21). In other words, visuals sometimes work where words might fail.
To illustrate her point, Cohn uses an example of deciding where to have dinner based on food photos of widely varying quality. These images, she asserts, make us start to question reality and the very nature of truth. “How can you possibly know which photos capture the “real” experience at the restaurant? Why trust any photos of restaurant food at all?” (p. 20). In our highly visual culture, we tend to trust things we can see ourselves more than things we merely read or hear about. That’s why “pics or it didn’t happen” is such a common refrain online. Things aren’t real until we see a photo. We want to see things for ourselves. And, for the most part, we believe we can trust something visual.
Trust, Thinking, and the Role of Visuals
For the most part. Cohn was right to question whether we can trust a photo of restaurant food. Images selected for advertisements or branding are carefully curated to highlight the exact food elements found most alluring or desirable by potential customers. By contrast, the food served in a restaurant is largely designed to be as quick and inexpensive as possible. We need to be skeptical of branding photos, knowing they are the best a venue can produce. Well-crafted images help make the argument that a restaurant produces quality meals and takes pride in their production and presentation alike.
Similarly, a well-crafted menu works to simplify the diners’ cognitive strain. As Cohn explains, effective document design “aligns our expectations quickly, simply, and clearly” (p. 24). An organized menu tells diners that the kitchen itself is organized, the staff are professional, and the entire operation has its act together. If you’ll pardon the pun, that’s quite a message to digest before reading a single word on the page. The medium itself provides the most important message, and visual rhetoric helps designers influence audience perception.
The Message in Textual Design
Audience perception is also influenced by textual design, though you’d hardly know it from how we teach writing. I often rant about the trope of Times New Roman, 12-point, double spaced, with 1-inch margins. I hate that design approach, mostly because it has become the default in education. This despite research showing it’s a bad way to present text, technological defaults encouraging better decisions, and poor suitability of the standard for digital consumption. Yet so many instructors repeat the TNR12/2x/1″ mantra that students believe it’s the only right way to write anything. Students have been taught to never thoughtfully select a font, to never consider line lengths, to never adjust kerning. They are told to abdicate their agency and follow the rules, even though those rules are inappropriate and irrelevant.
In “Beyond Black on White: Document Design and Formatting in the Writing Classroom,” Michael J. Klein and Kristi L. Shackelford assert that “visual design applies to the style of the text you use to convey ideas” (p. 334) and encourage students to put some thought into their typographical choices (font, sizing, leading, etc.) and their basic document design using the foundational CRAP principles.
Rachel Donegan, in “The Rhetorical Possibilities of Accessibility,” goes a step further into the technical side of digital document production. She encourages students to use alt text, heading styles, and presentation scripts whenever possible. These accommodations send “a rhetorical message about who your audience is” (p. 119). McLuhan asserted the importance of the medium as a message. If a medium is inaccessible because a rhetor fails to use accessible document features, that sends one hell of a message. The content of the text is lost to that reader.
The Message in Material Design
Rhetorical messages hide in plain sight in the design of material things and physical spaces, as well. As discussed in the 99 Percent Invisible episode “Ghost Lanes,” a city’s history is sometimes carved right through its present. Like the oddly shaped parking lot at Newark’s Prudential Center and the nearby railway bridge to nowhere, remnants of a bygone era cause design decisions to accommodate their legacies. We can see previous priorities in the present design of cities.
For that matter, the design of a city can indicate the history not only of previous physical designs, but also of cultural, governmental, and economic battles. In Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, Jeremiah Moss documents changes seen by neighborhoods across NYC. He notes the political decisions, mostly made by Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, that dramatically changed the city. Those two men replaced the quintessential character of historic NYC neighborhoods with cookie-cutter big-box solutions and outrageously overpriced housing options.
The point of these two sources is that a city’s design tells a story. The rhetoric of building design influences how we read a city, how we interact with a city, and how welcoming a city can be. Material designs indicate who is expected in a space and who is excluded from it. For example, think of the last time you walked into a bar or shop and immediately felt out-of-place. Whatever left you with that impression, it was the message of the medium of designed spaces that evoked those feelings. Before you interact within a store, restaurant, or friend’s home, the space must first welcome you in. The medium must send a message that the content is for you.
Conclusion: Twitter Itself is a Message
With that, we finally return to the matter of Twitter as a medium and the message it presents. Twitter gained popularity by being a simple way for real people to share their perspectives, in real time, with a real audience. Over time, the real-ness of Twitter, its users, and its audiences has come under question—and under fire. Fake accounts, fake news, and even foreign governments have colluded to hide or distort reality on the platform. What once was Twitter’s strength has now become its greatest liability.
Where Twitter used to proclaim we could learn what’s happening by using its platform, now we must spend our time questioning what’s real, double checking what we read, and challenging authenticity. The visual rhetoric of trust—those blue and grey check marks—no longer hold meaning. The information presented on Twitter is thus less accessible. We now need to processed and filter it, which requires added cognition. This degradation of trust inevitably damages the physical/social spaces created by Twitter—like those used by Occupy Wall Street, to the Arab Spring Uprising, to the Jan 6 insurrection. All this because, as Marshall McLuhan warned us nearly six decades ago, the medium really is the message. It takes real rhetorical skill to build and manage that kind of messaging.
Unfortunately, Twitter’s CEO is good at profiting from “hardcore” workers’ labor, not from rhetorical sophistication. So long, Twitter.