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Communication Revolution: The Semiotics of Social Media

Fig. 1

There is a lot to unpack in the screenshots on the opposite page, and I think I speak for many when I say there is a lot I'd like to simply ignore. But in the wake of the right-wing political insurgencies which have been rocking Western democracies for the last couple of years, public conversation has shed light on the damaging effects of social media on elections, campaigns and referendums. We have begun to perceive that the way we communicate on these new media is radically different from the modes of the past. A recent article in The Economist, 'Social Media's Threat to Democracy' outlines this in suitably economic terms, based on the theories of Herbert Simons. He wrote about an 'economy based on attention', where information consumes attention, therefore the ability to attract consumer attention becomes the primary design of online information sources.

A different and possibly complementary approach to the subject is to take a closer look at the communication itself. Although a post, a comment, or even a video will usually take up no more than a few seconds of a viewer's time, the impression it is able to make is crucially significant, whether it be in the attention it attracts or in its subtle lingering effects. The key to understanding these seconds is the science of semiotics.

Developed in the late 19th century by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce, semiotics is the study of signs or meaningmaking. A sign is defined as anything that communicates a meaning, and as my collection of screenshots illustrate, social media is absolutely cluttered with them. To name a few of the forms in which signs occur among them: the pictures, the number of likes or upvotes for a text, the emojis used as reactions, the Trump, the number of replies, the customisable banners, the blue verified badges, all of which constantly evolve with new features being added to the platforms, and all of which extend the sign-making process in social media well beyond just the text.

That is not to say that text itself has not been subjected to radical change. At a glance, you would notice the widespread agrammatical language or lack of punctuation. Many compare the written language we use online with the language we use out loud in conversation, in that we often articulate both with similar speeds, sacrificing the form of our language for the content. Most radically, the texts published online are almost always much shorter than in any other medium. Even when a longer text is published it is often cut off (see fig. 2.), leaving only the first portion to signify anything to most readers.

This externally imposed reduction is often a direct product of the platform's business model, as with Twitter's character limit. And of course, combined with a massive increase in exposure to short texts (according to The Economist the average hours spent online have doubled in the last three years), this all feeds back into the addictiveby-design phenomenon of the attention economy. As we get used to shorter texts, attention becomes a scarcer resource. But such shortened textual signs also have huge consequences for features signified by language such as discourse, rhetoric, and irony.

'I am right, Daisy, and the proof's you understand me when I speak.'

This line comes from Eugène Ionesco's character Berènger in his parable for times of near-total cultural and political polarisation, Rhinoceros. It articulates an accurate sentiment. Polarisation reaches a new peak when arguments from respective sides become so estranged from each other that understanding an argument gets muddled with its truth.

Take fig. 1. as a particularly gauche example. The Trump supporter has seen the trending #notmypresident and #resist, and has simply and unequivocally interpreted them as meaningless artefacts of the opposite side, completely ignoring the actual rhetorics of these original signs in the process. The mechanism of this understanding boils down to simply recognising whether an argument is on yours or the other's side. And so, the user changes the discourse irreparably - a term defined by the semioticians Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen in their book 'Multimodal Discourse' as 'socially constructed knowledges of (some aspect of) reality', or a context between the interlocutors in which to communicate issues or arguments. The Trump supporter's discourse becomes one of puritanical rejection or acceptance of the fact that Donald Trump was elected president. The entire socially constructed knowledge is reduced to that fact, coupled with an implied insistence that people are trying to deny it.

Fig. 2

On social media, we have few means of reasserting a shared code, something we can ascribe to the brevity of online texts, and how fewer words produce greater ambiguities. But this dysfunctional discourse is also caused by the formats imposed by social media. Kress and van Leeuwen describe four basic strata that produce meaning in a mode of communication: these are discourse, design, production and distribution. Particular to the concept of social media is that production and distribution are almost completely standardised and made invisible in the meaning-making process. You would not credit the various web developers and engineers behind your keyboard, computer, Facebook or Twitter profiles with contributing to the meaning of your posts online.

Yet, these web formats have an impact. The comment thread, for example, is a semiotic concept. Each sign in the thread is meant to act as a response to a more 'central' comment or post. They can, like Corbyn and Cable in fig. 2., be acting as a response to an original post. Or, like their hundreds of replies, they can be responding to a more central comment, but supposedly within the discursive context of the main post.

This communicates a surprising amount to the interpreter. For one, there is the sense of importance assigned to signs further up the thread, closer in digital space to the central comment. They often end up there by some chance algorithm or, even more ambiguously, by the fickle number of reacts or likes. The interpreter will, consciously or unconsciously, view the comment section as a progression from the broad and relevant to the specific and aspectual, leaving the impression of comprehensive dialogue around the subject.

But the mode doesn't allow for actual dialogue for reasons we have observed. A response isn't interpreted as purely a response but as an adjustment to the discourse and as part of a far more cluttered discussion. There is often also a double nature to signs due to the performativity of social media, when a comment is mostly interested in attracting attention to itself. There can never be a genuine argument-and-response dialogue under these conditions. It is a twisted and intractable discourse that is often too subtly disguised.

There are many other significant trends in communication left unmentioned here, particularly the colossal geographical and social levelling of online interaction, as well as the so-called post-irony employed in a lot of online humour. But what solutions can we propose at this point? One reaction might be to dampen the alarm bells - in many ways, we are just experiencing an acceleration of trends from the last 60 years, and so perhaps it's inevitable that new postmodern communicative techniques create polarisation.

But if there's one thing we've discovered, it is that the supposedly virtual social media experience is not in any way distanced from the rest of our lives. It has begun to dominate our everyday existence. This is a revolution of communication: massive acceleration is radical change. The only thing I can suggest is that we should extensively increase our awareness and deepen our analysis of the mechanisms, limitations and dysfunctions of our online communications.

This article was first published in SEE:ONE, The Courtauldian’s printed publication. You can find the full first issue of SEE here:

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