In the collection of jobs that digital media and the digital revolution have helped creating (although you can of course argue that some version of it have existed much longer) the influencer seems to be the most intriguing. Not only is it mostly mysterious what exactly the term means as it refers to an actual profession, which seems to be set in between the work of a digital media designer, PR departments and social media or community managers. It is also a highly individualistic profession (if at all), as it centers around one person (or persona) in communication with a group of followers that are not only interested in some kind of objective subject matter but also the person itself, their lifestyle, worldview or even biography. Thus the influencer is bound to try to be authentic, or rather to stage him- or herself in a manner that creates an aura of authenticity. Losing that means losing influence.
I’ve been doing some preliminary research on influencers during the last few weeks mainly looking at the Top 10 German YouTube creators. It strikes me that those creators often are referred to and refer to themselves as ‚content creators‘. With my background in Marshall McLuhan‘s media concept I feel like this doesn’t sound right. In fact I have been pondering whether this term may be some kind of group delusion. Or it might be an attempt by whomever came up with it to cover up the fact how deeply powerful those ‚content creators‘ really can be. Because it seems clear to me that every single one of those creators creates media and not content. And here is why:
As McLuhan points out in Understanding Media, the content of every medium is another medium. In the digital age this has created some very deeply nested and complex media architectures. For example the YouTube-video is a digital video (live or recorded) nested within a social network site which is nested inside the world wide web which is itself part of the medium we call the Internet. And because of the nature of digital video, it can contain other fragments of digital video, text and hypertext elements (like links or subtitles) and thus can hold several layers of reference to other media artifacts. On the layer of the social network site there can be additional textual information, like comments or even a chat for live streams.
Now all those elements are structurally implicit to the website of YouTube, but they only become actualized if someone uploads and publishes a video file. This video can itself contain(!) elements of the television medium, the film medium or any kind of audio-visual medium really that we are able to digitally represent.
Ultimately there exists only one medium without medium as content and that is speech because as McLuhan says „If it is asked, ‚What is the content of speech?,’ it is necessary to say, ‚It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.‘“ (Actually he suggests that the electric light is the second medium without content, but that’s not relevant here…)
Now media creators are half right when referring to themselves as content creators, as they do indeed create content for the platform they are creating for. But at the same time this content is media and it changes the media it interrelates with. There may of course be some effort put into any kind of message, subject matter or theme, which is what probably seems most apparent to an audience at first glance. But even more time and effort is spent on the form or aesthetic which manifests this message and is then connected to the additional form implicit in the platform. It creates a media hybrid. So I would argue (and I assume McLuhan would too) that the act of creation is more about creating and co-creating a specific media form than it is about creating a message. In fact the message doesn’t need to be original while the medium still can be and this seems to be true for most of the modern media. The idea of media as a bucket that doesn’t change whatever message is placed inside them to be mediated is an old one, and it is very obviously wrong. Delivering the story of Romeo & Juliet as a play on stage has a very different effect on an audience than watching a movie (even of the very same play) or reading the novel. So shouldn’t we acknowledge the fact, that content creators are really creating media? They are creating an artifact for a specific format and platform with great focus on the presentation and using a toolkit of conventions that has been established for that medium or rather hybrid of media. Which is why it’s not surprising that Instagram photos by different influencers have created a common aesthetic or language just as it has for Hollywood cinema or certain genres of digital games. Focusing solely on what the message might be tends to cover up what the medium really is. Hence McLuhan’s most famous aphorism „The medium is the message”.
Referring to complex media artifacts as content (unless there is an explicit understanding on McLuhans idea of media as content of media I guess) thus falls way short of what is actually being created. Which might be one reason there is a certain naiveté amongst creators and platforms when it comes to aspects like hidden or visible advertising, fake news, hate speech, censorship etc. Even giants like Facebook are in the process of learning that what seemed to be an easy project based on a simple mission statement of collecting and sharing lots of data across the globe and a set of deterministic algorithms, is actually a complex and complicated task with a lot of snares. And while influencers may be in it for any number of reasons, they too share a responsibility in shaping the very medium they create. It’s not that the thought doesn’t matter, it’s that whatever the nature of the thought, the media environment will have an impact on the way it becomes manifest in the world. We should be interested to understand what this impact is. Our view of the world may depend on it.
When McLuhan in the 1960s was on a mission to explain to executives what their company’s actual business was and to the greater public that „the medium is the message“ he gained massive popularity that vanished almost complete during the late 70s, even before he died in 1980. Back then very few were creating the media (or its contents). This balance is slowly shifting beneath our feet, and has been for decades. The responsibility to create media is spread broader than ever before and so should be the need to understand it. McLuhan suggested that it is the artist who helps to make visible our media surroundings and the way it impacts our perception, so we can then be aware of and deal with it. The first step should be to be aware of what it is we actually do and call things by their actual names. Content creation is just a cover-up, media creation is what actually happens. And it’s a thing you have to learn to do responsibly, nothing anybody is just magically able to do. And so influencers should wonder how and why it is they can influence anybody. And how they are influenced in return by the very medium they create.