By Charles Dowd, CEO and Co-founder of Plynk
‘The medium is the message’ is one of the legacies of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. He also saw money as a message, claiming it acts “as a translator and transmitter.”
Advances in payment apps and consumer finance technology are enabling the message of money to become a new media type, but money has always communicated more than monetary value alone.
At first glance, the act of giving cash might seem cold and transactional. Until we look to the East.
In Japan, cash gifts are ruled by particular etiquette. For example, a wedding requires guests give new, fresh notes straight from the bank, signifying a fresh start. The denominations shouldn’t be easily divisible by two, and are given in special red, white and gold envelopes. China has hóngbāo or red envelopes typcially given as monetary gifts. These conventions can translate to digital forms: the red envelopes were famously recreated inside WeChat during the Chinese New Year 2014.
Sending money via bank transfer may seem even more cold and transactional as a medium. But ask any bank teller what eccentric responses they’ve seen in the ‘For...’ field (as reddit did), and you’ll see evidence of how subverting the medium (making a joke in a sterile, formal medium) becomes a message in itself.
How we feel and think about money is changing. Back in 1964, McLuhan noted the increasing abstraction of money; “from coin to paper currency, and from currency to credit card, there is a steady progress toward commercial exchange as the movement of information itself”. McLuhan died in 1980, before his prophecy was fulfilled.
These days money feels less like notes in our wallet, and more a balance on a screen. As the medium becomes less tangible, it fits to shape the message. This is where technology, and P2P payment apps in particular, are allowing money to transform as a medium. In fact, into a whole new media type.
You don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg to know there’s money in facilitating self expression. Social networks thrive when they offer users a fixed medium to express themselves; whether it’s 140 characters or photo filters or ephemeral messages.
And in the world of money, deadpan jokes in the text field on EFTs and checks have evolved into emojis of cake and champagne on P2P app transactions.
The evolution doesn’t have to stop there. Money gifts for a wedding or birthday could come embedded into an animated gif, or a video. The sense of occasion and ceremony reflected in envelopes can echo in the media types.
Paying back friends for shared expenses can evolve its own conventions. Imagine if the shared costs for a vacation is sent in a media-rich money message based on the photos of the trip.
This kind of thinking should not be confined to social payments.
Any firm that facilitates payments could probably be presenting richer data to their customers. Notice how Google’s Inbox transforms the standard confirmation emails for flight bookings and online purchases. The data is extracted into a media-driven line item in your inbox, showing a product photo and delivery date, and trip destination. Why shouldn’t our bank account do this?
Players like Mint saw the potential early on. Mint transforms the data already available to banking customers by providing a different interface. Categorizing spending and visualizing budgets isn’t revolutionary, but by creating a new medium for customers to view their money Mint communicate much more than monetary amounts.
Note the recent addition of Apple Watch notifications to their app; Mint alerts their users with a suggested amount of “fun money” for the day based on spending history.
This is a more radical notion than you’d think. The notifications we get from our banks are usually bad news; debits are due, a card payment was missed, or a visit to a branch is due because some pesky identity document expired.
How often do banks send a positive message about money? Mint has transformed a simple calculation of account balances into a new format and new ‘money message’.
This trend isn’t suggesting that banks send out animated gifs to customers on payday. But the finance industry should consider paying closer attention to how users are already communicating around sending or spending money. There may be opportunities to facilitate, or even improve, on these money messages and create a new media type in the process.