Audience in the Engagement Economy

Case Maria Nordin

Julia Granroth


The business of the Finnish celebrity Maria Nordin called  Eroon oireista (“Dispose symptoms”) conducts courses on how to get rid of different medical symptoms such as cancer, epilepsy or the need for reading glasses, to name a few. Nordin advocates strength of mind in overcoming these difficulties, or diseases, as one would call them in terms of modern medicine.

This case brings together many current themes that have been circling in media and culture studies: modern technology with its new media forms, Western capitalistic society and so-called alternative facts. I will analyze the case by discussing different audience theories and examining the visibility of her marketing. The main focus in audience theories tends to be how do audiences receive and interact with media. My interest is what could be thought to be the potential consequences of what Nordin is advocating in the context of old audience theories, how these hypotheses actualize in reality, and how this case might fit in the wider context of engagement economy.  

When we discuss media, it can mean the medium of communication, the message that is being communicated, or institutions of production and distribution (e.g. Seppänen & Väliverronen 2014). Audiences construct an important part of media studies: in general it can be thought that there is no media without an audience to whom communicate. In the beginning of media studies, one of the primary concerns were propaganda theories in how media might influence message-receiving audiences. 

On the skin: the hypodermic needle

The most classical audience theory is called hypodermic needle theory. Harold Lasswell first used the theory in 1927 and it assumed that audiences absorb information the way it is given to them by different media representations without the audiences need to process or questioning it. This would mean that people seeing Nordin’s posts would be automatically affected by the content. The idea was based on Tönnies idea of an isolated mass society, which is easy to influence. Later, opinion leader theory or two-step flow theory became more common as we live in social surroundings and not as isolated populations. The opinion leader theory is based on the notion that certain expert or famous figures have more impact on the public opinion and that the audience is not affected by simply everything they come across on media. (Lazarsfeld et al. 1952; Lazarsfeld & Katz 1955).  

Nordin became a celebrity when she participated in the reality show Iholla (“On Skin”) that was podcasted on the Finnish national television in 2012. In the TV-show, there were four women who did not know each other, who were asked to film their everyday private lives every day for six months. This self-filmed material was edited to be a document series that gave viewers a sense of intimacy. Maria Nordin was one of these four women and received the most attention by the audience because she was married to musician Reino Nordin. This means that Maria Nordin has received her recognition from the traditional media but in an unconventional way.

The recognition gives the possibility to influence in public and to be an opinion leader. In this light, there might be a chance that people who come across Nordin’s marketing posts could be affected because of her public figure status. Even when Nordin is not a medical expert, the visibility she gains as a celebrity might mean that her cause (i.e. business) gains more followers (customers). However, Nordin is not a doctor and has no expertise in medicine, but instead has an architect’s degree, which can be seen to undermine her credibility. 

The opinion leader theory was formulated originally to explain voting habits and later applied to consumption habits. Audiences tend to be resistant to political or commercial persuasion because belonging to a certain group gives strength to beliefs of what are to be considered valuable or real. What affects most to audience opinion (political or other) are not so much messages received but with whom people are connected with in their inner circles, which is why polarization and pluralism exists. What was noteworthy is that group identities matter and opinion leaders tend to be situated also in the groups and are key figures why certain ideas gain ground or in most cases, why they do not. 

Media choice and social practices

The above mentioned traditional audience theories were more or less focused in what can be called a passive audience. Of course, the level of passivity can be contested, as there has always been choice to consume or to no consume certain media texts, such as a certain TV program or particular section from a newspaper, (Katz et al. 1974) as well as decoding messages requires some activity (e.g. Hall 1973). Audiences are active agents in choosing what media they consume. In uses and gratifications theory, Katz et al. (1974) where interested in viewing what do audiences do with media and noticed there are different reasons behind choices. For example, maintaining social relationships or mirroring personal identity via media representations.  

This idea brings us closer to the semantic and cultural perspective of media research in which communication is seen as a producer of meaning, social practices belonging and culture. When it comes down to defining media, Couldry (2012) has concentrated on practices. Couldry (2012) argues that media represents emerging and established social practices of communication. This means that research on media can be seen as research on different aspects of human, social practices of communication.

In faith healing, there is a tendency to highlight the strength of mind and correcting one’s energies in order to defeat illnesses. This is usually perceived as unmodern, non-Western, and in this case specifically non-Finnish. Nordin’s approach to the subject with an entrepreneurial logic is on the other hand to be perceived as Western and modern in its promotional execution, which I will return later. This entrepreneur and business aspect differ the case from the traditional concept of faith healing while simultaneously maintaining similar content and teacher/preacher aspect, which is quite typical in faith healings (e.g. Singer & Baer 2007). 

Even when what she is doing is somewhat culturally sound in terms of participating in the modern society’s rules or logic, the content of her business is widely socially challenged and unapproved. As Nordin markets her courses on social media, there is much interaction between the audience and her that one can read in the comment sections in Facebook. A few are interested in the scientific sources of Nordin’s arguments, while a number of commentators give critical and sarcastic comments that were mainly directed at Nordin: “Dispose symptoms course eases ailments as much as placebo in general – but the most it helps Maria’s chronic need for money,” says one commentator. Some, on the other hand, voice support to Nordin and some students of hers give positive feedback on the course, while others critique the negative commentators for narrow thinking and bullying: “How come here are such illiterate people? No one said that only stress causes poor eyesight for example. I also wonder how bad manners people have because no matter what you think of this woman’s writings, courses or whatnot it does not justify speaking this way.”  

Reception theory and cultural proximity

By creating reception theory, Hall (1973) wanted to examine how audiences interpret media. He was inspired by semiotics and the idea that communication is carrier, reflection, and producer of culture. According to Hall, there are three ways of decoding a message.  

  1. Preferred reading where audience sees the producer’s message as it was intended. 
  2. Negotiated reading where audiences might agree with some aspects of the intended vision but not all. 
  3. Oppositional reading where audience completely disagree with the intended message.  

Cultural proximity such as shared values, symbols, and meaning rise the likelihood of preferred reading. What the old audience theories teach us is that influencing is most effective when it supports our existing worldviews and values, whereas information that is not according to one’s own beliefs is ignored by cognitive dissonance. The early 2000s have witnessed a change in media institutions as interactive online platforms, commonly known as social media, have taken over the field. Before there were little focus on interaction and producers of media texts were seen separate from consumers of text. Nowadays, audiences are also seen as prosumers, as everyone has the possibility to create their own media texts and openly participate in societal conversations (cf. Lovink or Van Dijck).  

With the growing amount of information available online, platforms curate information for users depending on their preferences with algorithms. This means that people will see online content that they will likely decode as preferred reading. As online platforms operate “for free” their economy is based on gathering user data that is analyzed and sold forward to third-party members (datafication) in a process where users, their emotional responses and platform engagement is commodified (Van Dijck 2014). The more users spent time online and engage with the platforms, the more income the data companies make. This can be called the engagement economy. 

The main point of Nordin’s Facebook posts are to promote her course. This means that the messages written are essentially strategic. From marketing perspective, Nordin’s approach to create discussion and polarization is wise because the social media platforms value engagement. The engagement that is received by likes, dislikes, and comments makes the marketing posts visible to bigger range of users on Facebook (Jenkins et al. 2013). As people with oppositional reading comment the post, it receives even more engagement and continues to circle even wider. Wider reach of audience can create “economies of scale” in which it is likely that some will purchase access to the online course. Simultaneously, it can be debated if keeping the comment section open can be considered as a channel for public deliberation. 

Communication produces shared meaning and understanding that can help shape, modify or strengthen personal identities and forge social communities. According to Carey (1988), communication is a symbolic process that creates social “reality.” From this perspective, commenting as a ritual could reinforce the participant’s identity and belonging to a certain group. Carey has noted that what is being said is not as important as maintaining society’s time-space aspects. This might help explain the amount of negative feedback directed at Nordin as people take part in the online culture. The tone might be different in the closed Facebook-group for Nordin’s course participants, where in-group social ties might be forged by peer-to-peer experiences that reinforce pre-existing shared beliefs. 

Julia Granroth is a Masters student in social and cultural anthropology in the University of Helsinki. Julia is specializing in technological anthropology and is currently working on her Masters thesis on technological imaginaries and algorithms.


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Hall, Stuart 1973.  Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. University of Birmingham. 

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford & Joshua Green 2013.  Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York UP. 

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