McLuhan’s Tetrad in Social Media

I found this on sphinn and I wanted to respond to a few points. Its about applying a method of discussing the effects of media change on society by Marshal McLuhan called a Tetrad.

What is enhanced? – The idea of an authority for the collective. When we have lots of people speaking it is the voice of authority and experience that commands attention.

I think there is a subtle difference between what you are saying (the power wielded by authority figures is enhanced) and what is actually happening (the value of attention in garnering authority is enhanced). As social media matures online, its seems as if we’ll see the same number of media “authority” holders as in old media.


What is made obsolete? – The power of the individual is lost. The average social media user becomes redundant. Of course, s/he can still work their way up to being a power user in time, but the average user is left with little or no power and is forced to rely on top users in order to be �heard�.

Compared with other types of media the average social media participant has much more power (and authority?) than they’ve ever had before. What is obsolete is the necessity of power to get authority. It used to be that you had to be in control of a large and expensive distribution system wide enough to gain media authority. These days the distribution is large supply and cheap, what you need to do is get attention, which is scarce due to fragmentation.


What is retrieved that had been made obsolete earlier? – Brings back the idea of the shaman or tribe leader.

The traits necessary for individual memes to survive in forms of media with scarce attention and fast paced social dynamics, like urban legends, Homeric poems, gossip, and indeed oral culture in general translate directly to modern forms of social media.

What is reversed when pushed to extremes? – Back to �master and servant� methods of information retrieval. When pushed to its extremes more users will go back to using search engines. The social media power user is in itself a reversal of search engines – from lots of information sources to trusted sources.

In search you query, in social media you discover. You wouldn’t go looking for a pizza place on digg, just as you’d be more likely to go to digg when bored (or at least I would). The tetrad here is actually what would the subject reverse to turn into if it was pushed to the limit of its potential. If attention grew immeasurably scarce due to fragmentation, I don’t agree that search would replace the discovery function for the average user, they would simply be using smaller, more targeted niche aggregation sites of which there would be millions and the power wielded by a power user on any site would be meaningless.

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