Semiotics 101

I’ve been considering tags and what exactly it means when I “tag” a song. It has a different meaning than rating. I think I have an idea of how to design a collaborative filter using tags, but I lack the vocabulary to really work out the idea.

I think the terms I need exist in the field of semiotics. This post is to define them so I can use them. To be precise, this is a combination of selected definitions with some additional interpretation. Semiotics is large, complex and controversial, and this is in no way authoritative.

Semotics attempts define a terminology to take complex inferences underlying interactions and make them explicit. The primary thesis is that interactions are significantly more complex than they seem at first glance, and as a result semtiotic writings frequently end up taking something seemingly simple and describing it in excruciating detail.

The basic building block of semiotics is the “sign:”

sign — A sign is a meaningful unit which is interpreted as ‘standing for’ something other than itself.

Signs are methods for communicating information. For example, consider if I ask the question, what is a watch? The obvious answer is that a watch is a portable timepiece intended to be carried or, alternatively, that a watch is purposeful surveillance of something.

Semiotics would say that a “watch” is a signifier. It isn’t a watch itself, but a word refers to a signified conceptualization — a marker for the idea of a watch. There are several signifiers which refer to the same basic idea:


noun: a small portable timepiece


watch image

Note also that those five signs next to each other encodes information as to the specific concept being communicated. Because each signifier represents several concepts, as a group the decoder can recognize that the concept being represented isn’t “a vigil,” “a show” (montre in French), “the Traser H3 Classic Chrononometer,” or “sophistication.”

Each additional signifier above has a bearing on the concept being communicated, but for the viewer to assume that they knew what the specifier really meant is to succumb to the intentional fallacy. I mentioned that it wasn’t my intention to signify the Traser H3 Classic Chrononometer, but someone who hadn’t read what I wrote could easily argue that specific watch is a concept that meets all of the criteria. I intended the word “watch” to generalize the meaning of the image, but the reader could assume that I meant for the picture the specify the word.

The only way to know for certain that you and I are using the exact same definition of “watch” would be for us to look at every single thing ever, rate its level of “watchness” and compare notes.

Consider a “shepherd’s pillar” portable sundial. Do I consider it a signifier of the same concept signified above?

Portable Sundial

Fortunately, for the purpose of communication precise specification isn’t necessary. There is generally a particular concept that we want to communicate and we have a knowledge of our shared cultural contexts that we can use to pick the appropriate signs.

The sentence “he checked his watch” is generally meant to communicate the idea “he became aware of what time it is” — it doesn’t really matter if I picture a man looking at his wrist or a boy with a sundial. For the purpose of communicating “he became aware of the time” the granularity of “a watch is something that tells time” is all the precision of specification that I need. The message is the same for any interpretation of “watch” as “timepiece.”

message — A message is a sign which defines the systematic relationship (“meaning”) of a complex sign (“text”).

A “text” has nothing to do with the written word. A movie, a speech, a handshake and vase are all texts. They are signs which can be viewed in terms of the relationships of other signs. Note also that I am evaluating the signifier “watch” not as a concrete object, but according to its efficacy in performing the intention on the part of encoder to form a conceptualization in the mind of a decoder.

Consider though signifiers such as “power” or “love” or “self.” Here, because there is less social agreement as to the concept signified, it is more important when communicating to be aware of the potential differences in interpretation because there is a greater potential for the desired concept to get lost in interpretation.

To not recognize the separation between the signifier and the signified is, in my opinion, the essence of the Buddhist quote:

All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.

Or, the quote from The Illuminatus Trilogy:

Instead of reading the menu, they tried to eat it.

The other idea that semiotics brings to the table is that signs are rarely, if ever, simple. Semiotics is frequently used in the analysis of advertising because much of social influence relies on unspoken associations. Taking the previous sign, “he checked his watch” which I said draws on “watch” as “timepiece” to convey the meaning “he became aware of the time.”

Checking the watch, however, is frequently associated with boredom. Time perception is relative, as anyone in the dentist’s chair or in love can attest. Watches are the method that we frequently use to determine the proximity of the end of an event. If we are tried of what we are doing, we will look at our watches, and the behavior draws a meaning as a result.

“Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” asked the priest. “I do,” he said as he checked his watch.

Checking the watch can also be taken as a signifier of anxiety. Watches are the mechanism by which we coordinate our activities with other people. Being driven by the watch is associated with the dehumanizing stress of modern life. Watches are also associated with power since powerful people frequently have important things to do with other important people and they need to be on time for those events.

Consider the following text that is ostensibly similar to the one above, but that calls to mind stress:

“Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” asked the priest. He checked his watch and said “I do.”

So where do these meanings of boredom, power, stress and structure go when you see the word “watch” without any surrounding context? Most people are certainly not aware of the complex web of meaning all the time.

It is particularly interesting because the concepts of “boredom” and “stress” are antithetical to each other. Yet these two nearly identical signs call them up. Recognizing the different interpretations, it is possible to switch the interpretations. Reread the first sentence imagining “he” is a secret agent getting married to a sheik’s daughter to save the world. Reread the second imagining “he” is a pampered actor rehearsing a wedding scene for the 34th time.

The preface descriptions of watches were intentionally placed immediately before each sentence to encourage the reader to interpret the texts in particular ways. Even though it is fallacious for the reader to assume that they understood the writer’s intention, the reader has no choice. She must collect a set of signs and then make a guess as to the exact meaning being signified.

Grammar distinguishes two distinct types of meaning: denotation and connotation — “dictionary definition” as opposed to the “associated meanings.” The argument is “house” and “home” have identical denotations but differing connotations. Semiotics, which is rooted in the interpretive nature of communication defines the two as:

Denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations, the superior myth by which the text pretends to return to the nature of language, to language as nature.

— Roland Barthes

The term “myth” in semiotics has a particular meaning that is slightly different than the normal interpretation. Tom Streeter describes it in his essay The Semiotics of Media.

People often say that an ad’s message is that if you buy the product, you will be like the person portrayed in the image. If this were true, viewers of ads would have to be remarkably unintelligent for the ads to work. Who really thinks that smoking Marlboros will make them a handsome cowboy? (That people believe this is how ads work might also suggest why polls show people often believe that ads work, but not on themselves, only on other people.)

The Marlboro Man

The concepts of connotation and cultural paradigms suggests a more plausible theory of how advertisements work. A quick glance at a Marlboro ad like this one instantly brings to mind a whole host of associations or connotations that belong in the paradigm of “The Cowboy”: the American West with its vast, rugged, and beautiful landscapes, hard physical work out-of-doors, horses, cattle, the strong, silent kind of machismo that we’ve all learned to associate with cowboys in countless Hollywood movies. And so forth. And the makers of Marlboro cigarettes hope we will include their cigarette in this paradigm, that is, we will come to understand that the Marlboro cigarettes connote all those things that that belong in the cowboy paradigm: they want their cigarette to be a sign for “cowboyish-ness” in the same way that we understand that wearing a tie is associated with masculinity. If an office worker smokes Marlboros, they are no more a cowboy than is a woman who wears a tie is a man. She is not a man, she is dressing in a “mannish” way; the cigarette does not make you a cowboy, but it signifies “cowboy-ishness.”

Myths are simply the shared stories that we use to interact with the world. Myths are not necessarily true or false, myths are simply systems of interpretation. That they bear a similarity to “models” in the sciences is unsurprising.

I didn’t sleep in this morning. I didn’t put on a dress. I didn’t set my pants on fire. I didn’t eat raisins. I didn’t ram into other cars. I didn’t speed. I didn’t drive to Canada. I didn’t spend the morning reading comics. I didn’t spend the morning writing computer programs. I didn’t drink any coffee.

For each choice that I made to do anything, there were innumerable other options that I decided against. It can be argued that I didn’t really make the choices but just acted out of habit, but at some point I did each of the things I did this morning for the first time. I certainly didn’t do them out of habit that time, why did I do them?

I had a general idea of how the world works — a personal mythology — from various stories I saw played out through the course of my life. I used this conglomeration of myths to make my decisions. Many of them have served me well to date:

  • The American Dream — Through hard work and professional dedication I can be successful and happy.
  • Scientific Progress — Humanity is coming up with increasingly useful conceptualizations of the world.
  • Reciprocity — If I am nice to other people they will tend to be nice back to me.

When I show up to work with a pressed shirt and new haircut, people recognize that I am signaling my belief in the “young professional” image. It is a part of the American dream. We all know the story regardless of whether we believe in it or not and it creates an expected range of behaviors from me.

That, however, gets into psychology and learning, and I’ll get to them later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *