Selling Ourselves
on an Empty Medium


Michael Dickel

I advertise sometimes on social media. I’ve learned something about how it works. These are some thoughts about what social media really is about—perhaps a change of perspective, like the famous wine glass or kissing couple image, will help us to think about how the business of social media provides structure for the post-truth phenomenon.

To be clear, what I have to say is not new or exclusive to social media. Noam Chomsky has pointed out that “news” media (as all media) are not in the business of giving its audience (readers or viewers) the news (or entertainment or other “content”). The business model sells the audience to advertisers. Newspapers used to be sold for less than the cost of printing, and broadcast did not initially charge (cable and satellite changed that, but most news and much other media content comes in the basic plans, without premiums). And, famously, Marshall McLuhan told us “the medium is the message.”

News media at least also provide(d) content gathered, written, and delivered by journalists who (at least before “post-truth”) cared about ethics, truth, and fact, and who provided an important social service (if not perfect and often shaped or biased). The ads, are often seen as a “necessary evil”— commerce to provide this service. Still, ads remain(ed) the business model and, thus, subscriptions and ratings mattered.

Audience matters more than ever, because what social-media companies discovered is the medium is not just the message. It is everything.


Audience is the only content in social media, in a sense, and the medium (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) simply holds the audience. The audience busies itself with creating its own content and, well, being social. Hence, social media. These media should not be confused with content-media. While both sell audience to advertisers, content-media create or distribute others’ content to attract audiences. Social media create a medium for audiences to inhabit.

Therefore, social media are little more than empty frameworks—pure medium, with no content. The audiences are not only sold to advertisers, they now produce the content that keeps other audiences (and themselves) engaged.

This engagement is necessary in order for the social media companies, which provide the framework-medium, to sell the advertising to reach those audiences. And the medium—computers—provides detailed and accurate measure of the impact of the ads, which makes the advertiser’s purchase of audience more effective per dollar.

The medium, therefore, pushes engagement. Think of the increased availability of emojis / emoticons on the media, including Facebooks additions to the thumb on posts and, now, on post comments. More interactions that amount to increased engagement. Even those not posting have something to do and contribute to the process, and choosing an emoji instead of just clicking the thumb shows a higher level of engagement with that particular content.

So, what significantly differs with content-media, is that the content itself actually comes from the target audiences, who engage in it through an increasing number of channels (posting, comments / replies, likes, shares / replies, emoji, etc.). The social-media companies don’t produce content, just the frameworks—that is, the medium.

We, the users / audience, produce the content for social-media companies, give it away to them, and think we’re doing it to entertain ourselves and friends. However, more important to the business model, we’re also attracting and entertaining audience that the social-media companies can sell to advertisers—and make no mistake, we also are in that the audience for those advertisers.

Many of us, myself included, promote our own projects, work, businesses to these audiences with the “content” we produce. Many of us, myself included, also advertise on social media. So any one individual, such as myself, fills multiple roles within any one social medium. The social-media companies, however, control the medium and benefit from each and every role any individual plays. The more roles, the better for the companies.

(Granted, traditional media to “keep relevant” and stop audience loss, have increasingly incorporated engagement and aspects of content creation—from reader blogs to comments and replies online, so the distinction is less clear with contemporary news outlets than with traditional outlets of the past.)

We, as users / audience, engage— “curate,” “share,” “post,” “like” —all of which keeps the audience for the ads (ourselves and others) distracted from the marketing purpose of the media while providing the audience for the ads that the social-media companies sell (to us). This “engagement” also provides the framework with the information to target our interests so that it can present ads we are more likely to respond to with a “like,” “emoji,” “click,” or “conversion” (e.g., sale for the advertiser, purchase for you). And we participate willingly.

The algorithms the companies create don’t measure truth, although I should say they haven’t up until recently, when Facebook announced one to recognize “fake news.” The companies design the algorithms to measure and record engagement and conversions in relationship to interests and content. Content that attracts attention (and ad responses) rules the news feeds, timelines, recommend-for-you links, and thus rules the media waves.


They call it “Big Data,” all of the information that can be found out about us on the internet, much of it through social media and about our social-media engagement. And the Russians have taken this all quite seriously, using social media for political purposes.

Note that the social-media companies don’t directly sell conversions—the term for sales. The advertisers do track them, with help from the social-media companies and their software. They track these for the effectiveness of the ads and ad settings. Also, the more conversions, the more valuable an audience and the more successful the medium that holds that audience.

All of our content and engagement contribute to the “Big Data” out there. And the data provides a surprisingly, and scarily, detailed picture of who we are.

One researcher found a way to connect pages we like on Facebook with specific personality profiles with some reliability. The methods he used seem to have been used by a political consulting company to shape ad messages to fit those personality types and to target the ads to those specific audiences. They also used the data to choose which audiences to ignore as unlikely to respond.

Reportedly, the consulting firm worked with the Brexit and Trump campaigns, both of which succeeded when expected not to. Whether or not the work this company (reportedly) influenced the “surprise outcomes” remains a question for debate. However, the fact that these campaigns heavily used social media is another aspect of the medium and how important the audience it holds is (and such use is not only in ads, but for tweets and posts).

For reasons largely to do with evolutionary survival, we respond to fear, anger, and (literal and figurative) loudness. We pay attention to it because for most of our evolution, these types of social voices warned us, kept us safe, got our adrenalin going so we could put out fires, defend against dangers, or run away.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that LOUD lies, SHOUTED anger, SHRIEKS of fear (or ALL CAPS) get us going, our adrenalin roaring, and our tendency to quickly respond (with more action and less thought). This responsiveness could—just possibly—lead us also to more engagement, as a sort of “action.” We respond by clicking more little icons, typing another comment (reply), sharing (retweeting) more, and yes, probably also by clicking on ads more—a less direct response, but with adrenaline flow, we go.

Those famous (possibly Russian) trolls, however, keep the lies moving, the energy flowing. Why did social-media companies not “do something” about trolls before? And why are their responses (largely) minimal and ineffective now? Probably because they “influence”—the “audience” for ads probably “engage” more on social media and with the ads themselves when trolls keep the medium roiling. As the companies sell both exposure (showing the ad) and response (click), numbers alone are the main factor. However, the higher the response rate , the much more valuable the audience.

So the more engaged the audience and the more sales (of ads, by the users) the audience generates, the more the companies profiting from the medium don’t want to limit or lose that audience or anything / anyone who keeps it engaged.

Trump has mastered Twitter for getting people riled up—it doesn’t matter for or against, his Tweets get responses, articles, commentaries, editorials in response now that he’s President, symbolic head of the vast U.S. social network. Even if you or I reject the legitimacy of his presidency, he ranks as social-influencer-in-chief, or, in other words, troll-in-chief. And most of us have probably read one (likely more) of his tweets or at the very least, read about them.

Truth doesn’t matter in this medium. Only having an audience in it and how the audience responds to each other in it. The more engagement, the more the creators of the media can sell ads—ads fed into and made more effective in the medium according the data our engagement produces. The medium and its ability to hold an audience and promote engagement matter more than anything.


I don’t have evidence to support all of these ideas. These are thoughts I’ve been working through, and may eventually shape themselves into a long-term research and writing project. So don’t take these words as truth. They are not post-truth, either, though.

Think of them as speculation and hypothesis, a beginning of a process of trying to understand something about the media that contain us as its sole purpose to exist.

However, if it is the case that the liars, haters, shouters—the trolls and Trumps—do increase audience size and engagement (clicks and conversions), then we may be destined for a post-truth social media world until we choose not to respond and engage—that is, until as audience, we choose how to respond by not reacting, how to quiet the social around the trolls, liars, click-bait artists who (want to) roil it.


©2017 Michael Dickel

5 thoughts on “Social Media As Empty Vessels | Michael Dickel

  1. This was a fascinating read, Michael. I suspect your theories are correct, as really, in any business (and social media is still a business at its core) money is the bottom line. I find it interesting that with social media, we are both consumer AND product. I fear that you are probably right about the future of social media, and it makes me wonder – how can people NOT respond to the oh-so-many stimuli out there – without completely unplugging? (or to go totally tin-foil-hat, what happens when someone invents a chip that can be implanted into the body and keep you connected 24/7?) I don’t see that as out of the realm of possibility at all, and that’s scary.

    A large number of people I know don’t even THINK about this kind of stuff…they’re not worried about how Facebook or Google uses their information, they simply don’t care to understand how it’s being used to manipulate them. I’m not entirely sure where this apathy grew from, but with matters like internet privacy and policy at stake, it’s serious enough that maybe the ONLY way to really wake anyone up is with the push to their adrenaline? Like junkies who have built up a tolerance, only the most shocking information will actually register. :-/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a lot to think about. I don’t worry about my privacy bc I don’t believe we have any. Perhaps it’s my tinfoil hat at play, but the government and businesses have been keeping tabs since long before social media glimmered in our screens.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. This news about Social Media, Big Data, and Politics (with connections to Trump through Robert Mercer) is a must read for thinking about how social media could be important in contemporary politics—especially in post-truth. There are so many layers of lies here that it might take a generation to find what hides under them. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/14/robert-mercer-cambridge-analytica-leave-eu-referendum-brexit-campaigns

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What a tangled web! And if the UK Electoral Commission is “toothless” regarding investigating the ties, then I’m certain that our version is just as impotent – or perhaps they’re all bought and paid for…billions of dollars can buy quite a bit. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

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