The Industrial Production of Meaning

Chapter Introduction

During the twentieth century the production of meaning became industrialised.

How did the organisation and production of meaning change during the twentieth century?

How have interactive technologies changed the production of culture?

What are the differences between different media and cultural institutions?


In this chapter we:

  • Propose that the culture industry is central to controlling the production and circulation of meaning in society, and therefore has material consequences for the kind of society we live in, the way we live and the way we relate to each other.
  • Examine the industrialisation of communication in the twentieth century.
  • Explore the role professionalised and industrialised communication plays in forming and maintaining power relationships. 

Cases & Activities

Tracing our engagement with industrialised communication

Starting with the left-hand box in the figure above, trace the relationships between each component and ask the following questions.

What industrially produced content do you consume? Make a list.

Where and how do you consume industrially produced content?

Who do you consume it with? 

How often do you consume industrially produced content?

How do you respond to and circulate industrially produced content?

Now consider the content that you create and circulate on the web. What do you make?

Where do you upload it?

How do you and your friends interact with it?

List and define practices where you consume, circulate and create content. What institutionalized technologies, networks and devices do you use to circulate content?

What kinds of information does your creation and circulation of content online create?

What are the values and uses of that information?

What are the ways in which you as an audience member contribute directly to the production of industrially-produced content that you then consume?

List the range of institutions you engage with and categorise their control over the way you create and circulate meaning.


Privacy policies

We can examine the relationships established by the interactive culture industries by carefully reading through the privacy policies we agree to when we sign up.

How often do you read the privacy policies you agree to?

Why don’t you read them?

What conditions in a privacy policy would concern you?

If a privacy policy of a platform all your friends used concerned you what would you do?

These policies are a contract between you and the platform about the data and content you generate can be used. Through these policies you agree to a certain ‘role’ within a system of cultural production.

Read the privacy policies of platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Google and Twitter. For links visit the Media and Society website.

Instagram’s ‘information we collect’

From Instagram’s privacy policy, here is a list of information they collect about you. Consider what this information might be used for.

Your username.

Your password.

Your email address.

Your name.

Your profile picture.

Your phone number.

Images you upload.

Videos you upload.

Comments you make.

List of images you like.

List of people you follow.

Web pages you visit.

Your movements,

Times of day and locations when you use the service.

When you view images.

What images you view.

How many images you view.

How you scroll through the image feed.

What accounts you visit.

Which filters you use.

How often you upload images.

Who you tag in images.

What your images depict.

What hashtags you use or view.

Your IP address.

Web pages you visit.

Browser you use.

What devices you access Instagram from.

What your use habits are between different devices.

Words you use in your comments.

Where images are uploaded.

Geo-tags you add to images.


The privacy policy explains that this information has many uses. Some of which include enabling Instagram to:

Tailor or target ‘personalised content and information to you and others, which could include online ads or other forms of marketing’. The information they collect about you and people like you is used to shape flows of content on the platform.

Monitor how users engage with the service. This includes monitoring ‘visitors, traffic, and demographic patterns’. This data is useful for Instagram in packaging and selling its audience to advertisers and investors.

Conduct continuous experiments to ‘test’ and ‘improve’ the service. Instagram might use the information it collects to trial new features on certain parts of its audience. For instance, some users will see targeted advertising in their home feed before others.


Facebook’s ‘how we use your information’

Facebook also list an extensive array of information they collect about users. They explain they use the information to customise content that is ‘more relevant to you’.

In addition to most of the information Instagram collect, Facebook explain they also collect information they ‘infer from your use of Facebook’. This broad statement suggests a constantly evolving array of data they collect about the daily habits of users.

Facebook explain that the information you provide is used to ‘target relevant ads’. For instance, ‘if you like a Page about Gluten-free food, you may receive ads about relevant food products’ or if you check in to a sci-fi movie at a theatre they may infer you are a sci-fi fan for future ad targeting.

Facebook suggest we use this tool to understand how their advertising model works:

Log in to the tool and undertake an experiment. Imagine you are a brand targeting someone like yourself and your peers. Experiment with different categories and information to see how Facebook can ‘define’ and ‘deliver’ an audience to you based on information individuals have uploaded to the platform.

Considering these privacy policies, identify the relationships between users and the platform, and the uses of information, that the privacy policies institutionalise. How do these privacy policies value and protect the information generated by users for both users and the platforms?



Instagram’s privacy policy.


Facebook’s Data Use Policy

Facebook’s targeted advertising tool.


Twitter’s privacy policy.


Google’s privacy policy.


Tinder’s privacy policy.

Further Readings

The founding reading on the culture industry is Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay  ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment. This essay was originally published in 1944 in German and translated into English in 1972. You can also find it easily online. In this essay Adorno and Horkheimer conceptualise the culture industry, connect it to wider developments in the mass society, and critique how it organises everyday life. Adorno reflected on his original argument about the culture industry in the essay ‘The Culture Industry Reconsidered’ (Adorno 1991). This chapter offers a relatively accessible reflection on Adorno’s main arguments about the development of the culture industry. Thompson (1995) offers an historical account of how the media emerged as part of wider processes of modernisation and industrialisation. Where Adorno and Horkheimer’s account of the culture industry is philosophical and critical, Thompson provides a rich descriptive explanation of media processes and institutions. Hesmondhalgh (2013) offers an account of the contemporary organisation of the cultural industries. Steemers (2014) examines the dynamics of the global television industry. Taylor (2007) explores the changing nature of the music industry. Napoli (2014) and Wilken (2014) each offer accounts of the development of social media industries and platforms.

Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (2008) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso: London.

Adorno, T. W. (2001). The Culture Industry: Selected essays on mass culture. Routledge: New York.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2013). The Cultural Industries. Sage: London.

Napoli, P. (2014). On Automation in Media Industries: Integrating algorithmic media production into media industries scholarship. Media Industries, 1(1): 33-38

Steemers, J. (2014). Selling Television: Addressing transformations in the international distribution of television content. Media Industries, 1(1): 44-49.

Taylor, T. D. (2007). The Changing Shape of the Culture Industry; or, How Did Electronica Music Get into Television Commercials?. Television & New Media, 8(3): 235-258.

Thompson, J.B. (1995) The Media and Modernity: A social theory of the media. Stanford University Press: Cambridge.

Wilken, R. (2014). Places Nearby: Facebook as a location-based social media platform. New Media & Society.