Meaning Making in Social Media: Generation of the Social Value of Content through the Interaction of Multiple Agents

Handan Uslu


Initially, social media platforms’ software and the newsfeed are defined are characterized in the context of the current online media structure, namely Web 2.0. An analysis is conducted on two levels: (1) the common architecture of all social media platforms are defined through an analysis of the interface (2) the constituents of a single social media post and the agents that generate them are identified. Through an analysis of the architecture of social media platforms, as well as an analysis of the constituents of a single Facebook post, the meaning-making process is defined. The analysis reveals that the business, users, and software are the three main agents that collectively curate the newsfeed, and generate the elements of a social media post. The elements of a social media post function to provide social value to social media content by providing contextual cues and economization of interactions. Finally, the meaning-making process and the user interaction with the content is modeled by employing Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model.”


            Social media platforms have become widely used online technologies for communication, information exchange, and representation. A multitude of constituents come together to form a social media post. Reducing the symbolic processes that take place during this interaction into a relationship between the “signified” and the “signifier,” (Chandler, 2007,p.14), or using other traditional frameworks to describe meaning making processes, however, fail to encompass the totality of the symbolic processes that take place as a user interacts with a social media content.


            While some of the scholarly work on the meaning making process describe the process on two dimensional or three dimensional frameworks (Chandler, 2007, p.14), these approaches fail to explain the totality of the symbolic interactions that take place as meaning forms.

In order to provide a comprehensive description of the meaning making process on social media, analysis will be conducted on two levels. Firstly, architecture of social media platforms will be analyzed in order to understand what is common to the software of social media platforms. For this analysis, online content from three different social media platforms will be represented without the actual content. Through a representation without the content, the interface will be analyzed. After having an understanding of the common features of social media platforms, and the nature of engagement that users have with online content, second analysis will be conducted. Second analysis will look at the constituents that make up social media content. This analysis aims to illustrate the multitude of human symbolic faculties employed during the meaning making process.

In order to explain the meaning-making processes as the user simultaneously interacts with the elements of social media content, Jackendoff’s model will be applied. Initially designed to describe the meaning-making process during language, Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model” is applicable to various meaning-making processes. Through a two-level analysis of social media platforms, firstly an analysis of the medium, and secondly the constituents of social media content, it is aimed that the role of multiple agents during the generation, representation, and contextualization of online content will be uncloaked.

Exploring the symbolic processes that take place as user interacts with content is significant, considering the high economic profit that this interaction has generated, and the cognitive consequences of this interaction. Viewing online content has became a common phenomenon, the mediums through with online content is viewed has also became marketing channels. Online content has integrated with advertisements. Secondly, interaction with online content has lead to formation of particular habits by generating specific type of cognitive engagement. The “checking-habit” is a habit that has recently emerged, and refers to checking smart phones without any notification. Similarly, Facebook addiction is a form of addiction in which the informational rewards offered by Facebook affects the neurotransmitter system in the brain as online content function as informational rewards.

Current Network Architecture: Scrolling down as an Information Consumption Process and the News-feed as a Personalized & Dynamic Meta-Medium:

            News-feed is known as the page on a browser or a social media app, where content flows through in a social media platform. News-feed consists of a multitude of media, ranging from text, image, moving image, sound, a combination of all, or a link to media. Considering the variety of content, the newsfeed is a “meta-medium.”

The software, the user and the businesses have collective agency during the curation of content in the news-feed. Firstly, user interaction is a curating agent. Liking a page, or following a friend consequently shows content from those users. Secondly, such interactions of a user on Facebook, whether in the form of liking somebody else’s post, or following a particular company’s Facebook page, functions as data. Consequently, this data is used by the software to predict and present content that is likely to be interacted by the user. Thirdly, the demographic information entered in the Facebook page as well as the interactions of a user with content allows companies to target people accordingly for marketing purposes. Liking a page related to photography, for example, may cause companies that sell photography-related products to target you. Consequently, the businesses that are interested in contacting with their customers through social media platforms become an agent that curate content on social media.

This particular representation of content is enabled through the current network architecture. The current network architecture allows online content to be streamed and instantly accessed. A description of this network architecture by O’Reilly characterizes it as “spanning all connected devices,” (O’Reilly, 2005) and allowing the “consuming and remixing data from multiple resources” (O’Reilly, 2005). This particular architecture of the web allows online content to be remixed from multiple resources. This architecture is embodied in social media platforms as well, as online content from various resources are streamed into a single interface, called the “newsfeed.”

“Scrolling-down” is a jargon that refers to the process where users interact with a multitude of content sequentially. Scrolling-down can be characterized as a particular form of information digestion, enabled by the software configuration of social media sites. Scrolling-down is a mental process, where content that is stream in a single news-feed is continually interacted with: Through a finger movement on a smart phone, or moving mouse down of a webpage browser, content is accessed.

Considering that vocabulary provides a cognitive framework for perceiving and conceptualizing, this interaction that takes place during scrolling-down will be referred to as a “consumption” process. While the word consumption refers to usage of a material, it also fits the social media content considering (1) the multitude of information digested (2) the algorithm that renders an online content obsolete in a few days: the current network structure allows the content to be updated continually, (O’Railly, 2005) and therefore content published in online media previously becomes obsolete and is not interacted with.

Mediation of Content in Social Media: Analysis of the constituents of a single social media post

            Multiple agencies take place not only in the curation of the newsfeed, but also in the symbolic construction of a single social media post as well. Online content is represented along with other elements, such as the profile photograph of a person, number of likes, etc. An analysis of the interface design of a single social media post, and description of the agents that take part in the formation of a post illustrates the agencies contributing to the meaning-making process.

(1) Contextual Cue for Social Media Content: Employing the function of “identity” and Representing Online Content as a Curation

            When the user interacts with an online content, the photograph and the name are the most outstanding features of a social media post. As seen in Figure 1, the primary symbols that are represented in a social media post are a single square photograph, and the name and surname of the person (User name in Figure 1) that has shared a content. These two features allow a person’s identity to be mediated online. The “profile photograph” is especially functional at this point: various theorists mention the role of “image-representations” as they are mentioning the cognitive aspects of meaning -making (Shepard, 1978; Pylyshyn, 2003). Therefore, the profile photograph facilitates the process of meaning making by addressing the mental-images necessary for cognition. Representing a name along with a photograph is a clever interface design, considering that it facilitates meaning-making by employing text and image, two different forms of media simultaneously.


Figure 1: Commonalities Features of Social Media Posts


Figure 2: A post on Instagram


Figure 3: A post on Twitter


Figure 4: A post on Facebook

The fact that identity is represented online leads us to reconsider the construct of identity. While traditionally known as a psychological construct, identity is also a “social-cultural structure” (Irvine, 2012, p.4) that is symbolic, and can be represented and employed in various contexts. Irvine emphasizes that these functions are deployed in various contexts: “Human culture and social functions are inseparable from our expansive system of symbolic systems and the daily activation of symbolic functions in every technical form of media and communication.” (Irvine, 2012, p.1)

The activation of the identity function has also become the sole focus of some software companies, such as in the case of the “Gravatar.” “Gravatar” is a software program that provides plug-ins for personal representation in blogging softwares, and has been integrated to WordPress in particular to deploy the function of identity to online platforms. The software company develops tools that can be integrated and synchorinized with other online platforms, in order to standardize the representation of identity during online interaction.

Presenting an identity along with a content enables online content to be represented with its curator: Identity functions as a contextual cue that contributes to the meaning-making process: the user interacts with online content in regard to the person that has shared the content. This particular representation of content as somebody else’s curation is a dynamic of the meaning-making process. This symbolic representation leads to further associations in cognition that contribute to meaning making: A user’s relation with the curator of the online content, the curator’s social capital, legitimacy, are some of the dynamics that play a role as somebody interacts with a particular content.

(2) Collective Representation of Personal Interaction: Standardizing Interactions through Likes, Follows, and Shares buttons

 Another feature that is common to social media platforms are the buttons that represent the “Like,” “Share,” and “Comment” buttons. The users are allowed to interact with online content by liking them, commenting on them, and sharing them in Facebook.These buttons take the form of “Reply,” “Retweet,” and “Favorite” in Twitter. Instagram allows only liking and commenting. “Like” button on Facebook corresponds to the “Like” button on Instagram, and the “Favorite” button in Twitter. While different texts are used in different platforms, the modes are interaction are structurally similar. (see Figure 2, 3, and 4)

These buttons that enable interaction also provide a framework that communicates possible modes of interaction with the content. Therefore, the software and the interface design that has generated these buttons have a cognitive function: they are deterministic in the way they prepare the cognitive grounds for interacting with content.

The agency of the software behind this interaction, however, is cloaked: The interface design and the text in the buttons, “Like,” “Share” “Comment” are intuitive. The texts provide the necessary cue to inform users about the functionalities of the buttons, which is a crucial dimension of intuitive interface design: “…its highest ideal is to make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.” (Weiser, 1994) Therefore, considering that a good design is intuitive and invisible, social media platforms have succeeded in requiring minimal literacy for interaction in these platforms.

Along with implementing the function of identity, these buttons function to simulate social interaction. There is no direct interaction taking place between people or between people and organizations in the traditional sense (there are no direct e-mails, no direct messages, or any physical interaction), yet the users engage in social interaction by engaging with these buttons.

Aggregation of Interaction: Social Value of Online Content through Economization

A particular aspect of the “Like,” “Reply,”and “ Comment” buttons is that these buttons standardize interaction: The Like button, for example, is useful to express any form of positive feedback for online content. This standardization allows the interactions that take place n the individual level to be represented in an aggregated manner. If 10 different people like a post, these interactions will be displayed aggregately, through the text “10 people likes this photo,” despite the fact that 10 different interactions take place in different time frames by different individuals.

When software transforms interactions into quantifiable representations, online media content’s value becomes calculable. This process enables online media content to be economized, and consequently gain a particular value. This value prepares the grounds for Facebook to become a digital marketing platform, by providing the structure that enables monetizing impressions, exposures, and interactions.

(3) Presenting Content in a Digestible Form: Employing multiple human cognitive faculties to represent online content

The third aspect of a single social media post constitutes of the online content itself. While the content may constitute solely of text or image, the software also allows users to share content from another website by providing a link. A significant symbolic process takes place as users post a link: the Facebook software retrieves a title, subtitle and image as it relates to the shared content. Consequently, all of these elements are represented all together as content. The interface design that places these elements in a Facebook post also allows a standard representation. This standard framework is employed during the remediation process, which extracts the necessary elements in an online link. Extracting elements in this simple manner and presenting them all together (see Figure 1) provides cues about the tone of the content, and allows digestion of the totality of the content.

In the analysis above, the three dimensions of a social media post are focused on: (1) Profile photograph and name of the user (2) Interaction buttons and the quantified representation (3) Online content itself. Modularly analyzing these three dimensions is significant, considering that what differentiates a social media website from another is not only the graphical design, but also the space allowed for text, image, and content. Instagram content, for example, is similar to Facebook content, but it only does not have the share button. Other than this difference, there is nothing structurally different in a Facebook post or an Instagram post. The significant differences in the demography that uses different social media sites and the nature of content, therefore, are consequences of the variances in the social media post elements.

Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model” for Understanding Meaning-Making during Consumption of Social Media Content

Along with an analysis of social media content, literature is employed from O’Reilly’s definition of Web 2.0 to characterize the information consumption process that takes place during interaction with content online. The analysis revealed three different agents, mainly the user, the businesses, and the Facebook algorithm as agents that collectively curate the Newsfeed, and provide contextual basis for meaning generation. Furthermore, modularly analyzing these features has allowed us to understand how the meaning making process do not happen in regard to particular elements, but is a function of all the symbolic and cognitive mediations that has taken place prior and the software that designs the symbols.

While the agents that contribute to meaning making process is defined through a modular analysis, the information consumption process do not happen modularly: a user do not generate meaning through looking at each element separately, but perceive social media content as a whole. The combination of the elements in a post is a “modular combination,” yet these elements are perceived simultaneously during the scrolling down processes.

Jackendoff’s parallel architecture model (Jackendoff, 2007) for understanding language can also be employed to understand how these multitude of content is perceived simultaneously. The parallel architecture modal is one of the “features of language that are extensible to other symbolic systems” (Irvine, 2012). The input of a user, the content, and the aggregated interactions all function as contextual cues in a meaning-making process, and all contribute to attach a singular social and economic value to content.

In this context, the terminology that Jackendoff employs to describe the “Parallel Architecture Model” (Jackendoff, 2007) can be translated into the social media context as well. While a social media post and language are structurally different, Jackendoff proposes a non-directional method of absract thinking that gives insight for making sense of complex phenomena. Given Jackendoff’s model, the components of a social media post can be considered as “generative components.” (Jackendoff, 2017, p.12)

The distinction that Jackendoff makes in terms of parallel processing vs. serial processing (Jackendoff, 2007) is also applicable to the context of a social media post. As human employs the language faculty, the language is perceived as a whole structure, and all the sub-structures of a language are perceived collectively. This characterization applies for a social media post as well, considering that all the elements form a post regardless of the completeness of the post, or the content inside it.


In this analysis, at first the newsfeed is characterized as a meta-medium in the context of the current network architecture. Afterwards, an analysis of the social media content revealed the role of multiple agents in the duration and representation of online content. The social value of content through economization is explored with a focus on the software’s agency. Consequently, Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model” is employed to describe the meaning-making process. The analysis reveals that contextual cues of online content and embedded interaction functionalities allow online content to gain social and economic value during the mediation process.


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