An Inventory of FX: Marshall McLuhan Revisited
Since first publishing “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” in 1967, Marshall McLuhan’s theories of media’s impact on society have remained relevant and increasingly prophetic with the proliferation of digital social mediums. Indeed, in perhaps one of his most foretelling sentiments on the presence of electronics and the loss of personal privacy, McLuhan notes, [e]lectrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions—the patterns of mechanistic technologies—are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval […] What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing? (12).
While McLuhan’s notions about our ever-decreasing sense of privacy by way of ‘electrical information devices’ are incredibly pertinent—and point even to the constant barrage of electronic sound that we face today from said devices—this is just one facet of the extraordinary influence he believes our surrounding media has on us, which are “pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences” (McLuhan 26).
Given that McLuhan’s work is founded on mediums that are not entirely obsolete, but becoming outmoded (like television), this paper will seek to employ and update his hypothesis that “[s]ocieties have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication” (8) through its application to a mode of information transmission that we use today, Vine videos. The choice to examine how the videos of Vine, founded in June 2012, both indicate and induce the sort of consequences for viewers that McLuhan posits comes as a result of their contemporaneity; their unique form (each lasting only six seconds); and their widespread popularity.
As aforementioned, one of the chief reasons it is important to investigate the individual and social impact of Vine as a new medium, if we can in fact refer to it as such, is because of the videos’ formal structure. Just as McLuhan suggested, more significant than the depicted content itself, which ranges in topic from animals, to news, to style, is Vine’s six-second long, infinitely looping format, recorded and edited on users’ mobile devices. What results is a frenetic assemblage of brief audio and video clips that continuously play until the viewer intervenes to stop them, encouraging a process of re-watching (as evidenced by the millions of loops some videos receive) through their forced repetition as well as their blink-and-you-might-miss-it Though not the first of its kind—photo-sharing site Flickr enabled users to upload videos with a maximum length of 90 seconds in 2008, and 15-second video-sharing service Tout was launched in 2010—Vine’s 40 million users (Vine) and 1 billion loops per day (Plom) demonstrate its enormous popularity and prompts numerous questions about this type of media.
Why are we so mesmerized by momentary stop-motion videos when we have the technology to create high definition feature-length narratives? Are Vines a response or contributing factor to weakened attention spans? And, most importantly, what short-term and long-term cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic repercussions might Vine videos issue? These are not questions that can all be addressed here nor resolved with definitive
answers, as more time must pass from the medium’s inception in order to properly track its course of effects, but tentative hypotheses based on existing knowledge can be proffered.
A possible answer to the first inquiry raised—that is, what exactly is it about Vine videos’ short form that is so appealing?—can be offered by Tom Gunning’s theory of the cinema of attraction, a tendency in film he finds most (though not exclusively) visible in those made prior to 1906. In his 1986 article, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” Gunning explains, “it is a cinema that bases itself on the quality that [French director Fernand] Léger celebrated: its ability to show something. Contrasted to the voyeuristic aspect of narrative cinema analyzed by Christian Metz, this is an exhibitionist cinema” (64). In other words, narrative cinema attempts to say something through the employment of a unified storyline that advances this goal, while the primary aim of the cinema of attraction, as Léger and Gunning suggest, is to show something, and show it spectacularly. Films that offer just this—a visual spectacle—satisfy in the viewer a desire to witness exhibitionistic performances of any kind, as Gunning relates through mention of another popularly enjoyed attraction, those of the amusement park fairground (65).
What plays a considerable role in spectacles, and thus where Vine videos succeed, is temporality—or, more specifically, brevity. In a later article written by Gunning on the subject, he notes, “[r]ather than a desire for an (almost) endlessly delayed fulfillment and a cognitive involvement in pursuing an enigma [as with narrative cinema]…the attraction is displayed with the immediacy of a ‘Here it is! Look at it’” (44). This fascination (and obsession) with immediacy is now more apparent than ever, when hardware and software combine to enable users to create, share, and receive content directly as well as perpetually, with real-time updates. In fact, when McLuhan writes, “[e]lectric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men” (16) it is as if he is referring directly to Vine videos in both their social implications and immediate, looping aesthetic.
There is an additional point made by Gunning’s theory of the cinema of attraction that pertains directly to Vine’s form as a medium and resulting implications that cannot go without mention. Quoting Italian poet and Futurist movement founder Filippo Tommaso
Marinetti’s writing on the variety theatre, Gunning comments, “Marinetti not only praised its esthetics of astonishment and stimulation, but particularly its creation of a new spectator who contrasts with the ‘static,’ ‘stupid voyeur’ of traditional theatre. The spectator at the variety theatre feels directly addressed by the spectacle and joins in, singing along, heckling the comedians” (65). Here, Marinetti and Gunning praise the type of participatory media that Vine went on to fully realize. Structured with the express intent of encouraging performer-spectator interaction through instantaneously-provided feedback via “likes,” comments, shares, and spin-off videos, Vine enables the ultimate in engaged spectatorship and exemplifies a medium that facilitates tremendous exchange among users. Having established that the immediacy and brevity of Vine videos satisfies in the viewer a desire for spectacle, we must now turn to what possible outcomes may arise from consuming a medium of this type. As noted above, one already obvious effect of Vine is its encouragement of the interchange of information and creative ideas between an astounding number of people. As McLuhan predicted of electronic technology, “[i]t has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale” In accordance with this global audience and the medium’s short form, Vine stimulates inventiveness within its users, who must think of innovative ways to play with the six-second length restriction if they wish for their videos to stand apart from the myriad others. Going further, we may likely find that this mobilizes in other mediums an aesthetic of concise creativity that is as much associated with “high” art as it is “low.”
Finally, and where a contemporary application of McLuhan’s theory may best be advanced, is the influence that the medium of Vine has (or will have) in enacting real social, political, and cultural change. Alongside McLuhan’s notion that the mode of content transmission (i.e. the medium) has more of an impact on individuals than the content itself is his equally salient belief of how media must then be utilized for agendas of revolution, knowing its powerful effect.
Transforming the loss of privacy that was pointed to at the outset of this analysis into a positive force for societal advancement, McLuhan remarks, “[i]n an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained—ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and
participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.” While perhaps perceived as an idle form of amusement on the surface, the creation and sharing of six-second videos via the medium of Vine indeed plays a significant role in this digital environment, whose same invasiveness ushers the potential for greater relatability and thus responsibility among individuals to one another.
Works Cited Gunning, Tom. “‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t’: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions.” The Silent Cinema Reader. Ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Kramer. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
---. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Wide Angle 8.3-4 (1986): 63-70. Print. McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam, 1967. Print. Plom, Richard. “New Vine camera: Shoot, import, edit and share — fast.” Vine blog. 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. Vine (vine). “We've said this before and we'll say it again: this community - now more than 40million of you - is amazing. Thank you for inspiring us.” 22 Aug. 2013, 1:00 p.m. Tweet.