The Mechanics of Media

Why messages sink or spread

David Kadavy
11 min readApr 20


Painting 1930, by Patrick Henry Bruce

Every message is shaped by the mechanics of media. Whether it’s a tweet, a TikTok video, a news article, or a movie, the characteristics of the medium determine how it’s made, how it’s consumed, and whether it spreads. If you understand the mechanics of media, you can more effectively communicate in a wide variety of mediums, and protect yourself from being manipulated by media.

The message is the mechanics of media

As media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” In Understanding Media, he wrote:

The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium…results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs….

In other words, it’s not the content of the medium we should be worried about, but the way the characteristics of that medium determine its content — the mechanics of media.

The five characteristics of media

I propose that there are five characteristics present in any medium, which determine these mechanics. These characteristics affect the creation, consumption, and distribution of media. (In other words, what message is delivered, how that message is received, and whether or not that message spreads.)

Those five characteristics are:

  1. Incentive
  2. Sensory
  3. Physical
  4. Social
  5. Psychological

The mechanics of media are so complex, these characteristics naturally interact with one another. I’ll give a brief introduction of each, then show how these characteristics work in the popular mediums of podcasts, Twitter, and TikTok.

1. Incentive

The Incentive characteristics of a medium are sources of motivation, whether money or otherwise, that shape the creation, consumption, and distribution of messages in that medium.

The creator of a piece of media is motivated by various incentives, such as money and…



David Kadavy

Author, ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management’ Former design & productivity advisor to Timeful (Google acq’d).