Semiotics and the web

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"the story of mankind... is written on its virtual walls"
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 29 January 2017


See also Civic media | Media literacy | Semantic search | Semiotics and the web - literature review | Semioticians and their work

  • "...the story of humankind is being written on its virtual walls; electronic images now being shared around the world and the necessity to understand and study these signs is becoming more important." — Albertson, 1997
  • What is the connection between semiotics and the web / and the semantic web? Perhaps the semiotic web is knowledge (re)thought, repurposed and visualized for front-end information retrieval systems? (See EBM example...) Whereas the semantic web of interconnected meaning is a knowledge container in the cloud and out there? A global database of data about data?
  • "As a science of signs, symbols, and codes, and of their effects on patterns of individual and social cognition and behavior, semiotics allows its practitioners to cast a very wide investigative net indeed. As Eco has pointed out, the current field of semiotic practice encompasses issues related to psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, zoology, olfactory signs, tactile communication, paralinguistics, medicine, kinesics, proxemics, musical codes, formalized languages, written languages, natural languages, visual communication, systems of objects, plot structures, text theory, cultural codes, aesthetic texts, mass communication, and rhetoric (1976, 9-14). It is unlikely that De Saussure and Peirce — the founders of semiotics at the beginning of this century (1916, 1931) — could have envisaged its development into such an elastic crossdisciplinary instrument of scientific inquiry. Perhaps the primary reason why semiotics allows one to tread so easily into so many domains of investigation is its methodological modus operandi, which — to adapt Derrida's often-used term — makes it possible to "deconstruct" any culturally-specific model of cognition or behavior into its sign based components (1972, 36–52). Virtually anything that involves codes, signs, symbols, objects, or artifacts will come within the purview of semiotic analysis." — Marcel Danesi, University of Toronto

What is semiotics?

Semiotics is the systematic study of the linguistic and nonlinguistic signs and symbols used in natural and artificially constructed languages. The three branches of semiotics are:

  • pragmatics (how signs are used by those who make use of them)
  • semantics (relationships of meaning between signs and their referents), and
  • syntax (how signs are combined).

Each branch has theoretical, descriptive, and applied aspects.

Semantics & semiotics

What does all of this mean? (Why is it of interest?)

  • First of all, the scholarly discipline of semantics is concerned with meaning (especially the meaning of words and hence language)
  • Semiotics, however, as a counterweight is concerned with non-linguistic meaning i.e. via icons, symbols, signs
  • Broadly, human language can be divided into these domains:
  1. semantics (meaning)
  2. syntax (structure)
  3. morphology (forms, such as endings)
  4. phonology (sound systems) and
  5. phonetics (actual sounds)

All of these elements are linked to human language. If we are to design a more organized web and think about how to design better user interfaces, what might these broad categories tell us? What can librarians and scholars learn from contextualization of these vast ideas?

What is a sign? Do we use signs in delivering information to users?

  • The word sign is used to describe anything that carries meaning - whether it’s a word, a symbol/image or a sound; body language
  • Signs form part of the coded system within a media text
  • Encoding & decoding; media texts are encoded by their producers - decoded by their audiences
  • Sometimes the same system of codes is used by both producers and audience...
  • Sometimes spectators interpret the text using a completely different system
  • Signifiers; due to their nature, we should view signs as having two distinct parts: signifier (the physical sign itself); the signified (the meaning carried by the sign)
  • Denotation/ Connotation

Of course we use signs of all kinds in library services. A sign is anything intended to signal meaning of some kind. On websites of various kinds, meaning can be transmitted or 'signalled' by using an image, icon, label or a hyperlink of some fashion. According to the semiotician, signs have a significant (e.g. link label), a referent (e.g. actual page the link points to), an interpretant (e.g. the concept it signifies), and even a behaviour (e.g. the link mechanism itself). Signs of all types leverage existing content to express some kind of function (e.g. a thumbnail image used as link to a product) or affordance.

What is a semiotic unit?

A semiotic unit is a sign or group of signs used on a website to represent ideas or concepts held together by some logic or criteria. A graphic, logo, text or a combination of all three may fit a definition of a semiotic unit. A semiotic unit used to sell CDs on a website could be comprised of the cd image itself, text with a price and a hyperlink with the name of the title and artist. The smaller semiotic units work together through positioning and other design cues to define which album is for sale (album image), how much it costs (price text), and where to click to buy it (hyperlink with name of album title and artist name).

Semiotics in research

Semiotics may hold clues for interpreting the needs and wishes of our users in information organizations and libraries. A sign stands for something. We communicate and make sense of our world through signs. By association (and inference), we see flowers as a sign of love, the onset of chest pain as a heart attack and a frown as sadness. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and American logician Charles Sanders Peirce are two seminal thinkers in semiotics. As the study of non-linguistic meaning of signs in society, semiotics can be applied to both virtual and physical spaces -- and may have application for the web. For example, library websites convey all kinds of non-linguistic messages (some unintended). In some societies, it is common to view everyday objects as symbolic; hairstyles, cars, clothing, to name a few. If you wear a tuxedo, you must be going to a formal event; t-shirts and shorts are unacceptable attire in workplaces -- and so on. In Muslim countries, strict codes exists for clothing and covering the face and/or body.

Key websites


See also Semiotics and the web - literature review

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