How We Speak When We Say Things about Ourselves in Social Media: A Semiotic Analysis of Content Curation

Roger Dawkins

Abstract


Curating content is a key part of a social media user’s profile—and recent reports reveal an upward trend in the curating of video, image, and text based content (Meeker). Through “engagement”—in other words, posting content, liking, sharing, or commenting on another’s content—that content becomes part of the user’s profile and contributes to their “activity.” A user’s understanding of another user in the network depends on curation, on what another user posts and their engagement with the content.  

It is worth while studying content curation in terms of meaning, which involves clarifying how a user makes themselves meaningful depending on what they curate and their engagement with the curated content, and also how other users gain meaning from someone else’s curatorial work, determining how they position themselves in relation to others.

This essay analyses the structure of meaning underpinning an individual’s act of curating content in social media, each time they publish content (“post”) or republish content (like, share, and/or comment) on their social media homepage. C.S. Peirce’s semiotics is the method for clarifying this structure. Based on an application of Peirce’s tripartite structure of semiosis, it becomes clear that curated content is a sign representative of the user who posted the content, the poster, and that, with the range of ways this representation takes place, it is possible to begin a classification of social media signs.

Background: Meaning, Self-Documentation, Semiotics

The study of meaning is a growing field in the research of social media. Lomborg makes a case for the importance of studying meaning due to social media’s “constant flux” and evolution as an object of study. In this context, structures of meaning are a stabilising component that provides “the key to explaining continuity and change in social media over time” (Lomborg 1). In her study of social media, Langlois defines meaning broadly as something we create and find. “Finding meaning” and “making sense” of the world, people, and objects involves the whole gamut of decoding meaning and applying social and cultural ideas as well as a more Deleuzian pedagogy of “real thinking” which involves creating new concepts (Deleuze Difference; Dillet).

An analysis of the structure of meaning underpinning content curation extends existing research on self-documentation online, self-presentation, and personal media assemblages/personal media archives (see Doster; Good; Orkibi; Storsul). As noted by Langlois, “There has been a massive popularisation of self-documentation” (114) and it involves more than publishing reflections on blogging and microblogging platforms. It involves forms that focus on “self-presence” and “self-actualisation,” including sharing pictures, videos, and memes, writing comments, and “the use of buttons such as the Facebook ‘Like’ button” (117).

Recent research discusses how Facebook profiles use the platform to collate content in a manner similar to that of diaries and scrapbooks. Good explains how social media users today and users in the print era use “tokens” to communicate taste and build cultural capital. An “interest token” is content that is shared: in the print era these are mainly clippings and in social media these are “digital articles” such as links to video clips as well as liking friends’ posts (568). Crucial to the content in both eras is the latent presence of the user. For example, in Victorian Britain contributors to confession books would hint at their desires through textual quotations. Good describes much the same structure of meaning underlying a user’s publishing of content on Facebook: “Tokens, when analysed as part of a broader media assemblage in a Facebook page or scrapbook page, can essentially speak volumes about a user’s cultural aspirations, dispositions and desires for social distinction” (568). Doster also reiterates this point about how digital technology enables users to associate themselves with digital content in order to represent themselves in complex ways.

The structure of meaning analysed in this essay is found in the very phenomena identified above: when a user, by publishing content or republishing another’s content, is using their profile to curate content which is interpreted by other users to say something about them. As noted, current social media research discusses how, on platforms such as Facebook, users collate content as an important strategy of self-documentation and self-presentation. Other research examines in detail the conditions influencing the production of meaning (Langlois), identifying the software algorithms described by Chowdhry that decide what content social media users see on the platform, influencing what they curate in the first place—for example, when a user republishes, by liking, sharing, and/or commenting on, another friend’s post, a social organisation’s post, or even an advertisement. This paper, however, analyses the structure of meaning specifically.

Peirce’s semiotics is a conceptual framework that explains how this structure of meaning works. Semiotics has a fruitful history of explaining in detail the problem of meaning. Chuang and Huang are clear about the benefit of Peircian semiotics as a conceptual framework for systematically presenting and processing an object of analysis (341); Metro-Roland is also adamant about the value of Peirce’s theory for offering a “robust heuristic tool” (272); and Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 2: The Time-Image famously praises Peirce’s Sign as an alternative to Ferdinand de Saussure’s more restrictive schema in semiology (Dawkins). Semiotics clarifies how an individual act of content curation is a triadic Sign (Representamen, Object, Interpretant). This triadic structure explains how posters are represented by content, and, in turn, how the content is interpreted to be representative of them. Following from semiotics, this paper seeks to “identify signs and describe their functioning” (Culler viii) and beyond its scope is an analysis of the conditions under which the Sign is produced.

The Sign, According to C.S. Peirce

Peirce’s semiotic, a branch of philosophy, is triadic. He proposes that we can think “only in terms of three”, and, from these “modes of valency,” and based also on his critique of Kant (Deledalle), he claims three phenomenological categories of being: Firstness and the state of possibility; Secondness and the state of existential relations; and Thirdness and the state of certainty, reasoning, and general rules. In relation to these three modes of being he claims that the way we make sense of the world—a process he names semiosis—also has three constituents.

The three constituents of semiosis inform the three core elements of Peirce’s triadic Sign. There is the Sign itself, which Peirce calls the Representamen or Sign; there is the Object the Sign represents; and there is the resulting thought that follows, called the Interpretant (CP 1.541). (References to Peirce’s work are based on the customary practice of citing his collected works: CP, Collected Papers, with volume and page numbers.) Given that semiotics is triadic, Peirce defines three kinds of Representamen, three kinds of Object, and three kinds of Interpretant. For the sake of simplification this paper focuses on Peirce’s Object and Interpretant. They are briefly explained below and noted schematically in the appendix.

In terms of Peirce’s Object, there are three kinds of Sign–Object relation. From the category of Thirdness, a Sign represents its Object according to an imagined idea. Peirce describes this relation with the Symbol. From the category of Secondness, a Sign represents its Object by being physically linked to its Object, and in this case it represents an actual object. Peirce describes this relation with the Index. From the category of Firstness, a Sign represents its Object based on qualitative resemblance, and in this case it represents a possible object. Peirce describes this relation with the Icon.

In his explication of Peirce, Deledalle reminds us that “Nothing in itself is icon, index or Symbol” (20), meaning, for example, that what is an index in one semiosis could be a symbol in another. Deledalle discusses a symptom as a Sign of an illness, which is the Object, and an example is a symptom such as a person’s shivering. He writes: “If this symptom is referred to in a lecture on medicine as always characterising a certain illness, the symptom is a symbol. If the doctor encounters it while he is examining a patient, the symptom is the index of the illness” (19–20). Expanding Deledalle’s discussion, if the symptom were represented in a graphic of a shivering man, the symptom is an icon.

Consider the three ways a Sign is interpreted. From Thirdness, the Sign is associated with the Object based on a conceptual connection imagined by the interpreter. This is an arbitrary connection based on convention. This kind of interpretation is called an Argument. In Secondness, Sign and Object are interpreted to form a physical pair and the interpreting mind simply remarks on this connection. “The Index asserts nothing,” writes Peirce, “it only says ‘There!’” (CP 3.361). This kind of Interpretant is called a Dicent. In Firstness, the qualities of the Sign are interpreted to resemble a possible Object, and those qualities “excite analogous sensations in the mind for which it is a likeness” (CP 2.299). This kind of Interpretant is called a Rhema.

The three kinds of Representamen, three kinds of Sign–Object relation and three kinds of Interpretant together create 10 principal classes of Sign. It is worth noting that Peirce originally envisaged five categories of being, which would produce further classes of Signs; moreover, in his cinema books Deleuze develops an even more expansive taxonomy of Signs from Peirce’s theoretical framework, and this is based on his subdivision of Peirce’s categories.

Crucial is how semiosis depends upon “the set of knowledge and beliefs that will be brought to bear” (Metro-Rowland 274), or what Peirce calls collateral experience. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s first appearance on The Tonight Show explains the importance of collateral experience for meaningfulness (Goldenberg). Seinfeld says he loves a particular sign he saw on the freeway—which is unique to New York—that reads “Left turn OK.” When pronouncing the text on the sign he intentionally adds a pause, so it sounds more like, “Left turn... Okay.” Seinfeld explains that the structure of the text adds a more personal and human tone than is typical of street signs (a tone Seinfeld makes perfectly obvious through his exaggerated pronunciation), and the use of the colloquial and friendly “okay” also contributes to this personal touch. Seinfeld explains how a driver can’t help but to interpret the sign as being more like a piece of advice they could take or leave. Similar, he says, would be signs like “U-turn: enjoy it” and “Right turn: why not?” Seinfeld is making clear that the humour of the example lies with the fact that a driver’s initial response to such as sign is to take it as an instruction; in other words, the driver’s collateral experience tells them that the object of the sign is an instruction.

Towards a Classification of Social Media Signs 

It is fair to say that how one is perceived online is influenced by the content they curate. For example, Storsul cites the following comment from a teenager: “On Facebook, you judge each other’s lives. That’s what you do. I look at pictures, how they are, and I look at interests if we share some interests. If you visit my profile you can find out everything about me” (24). In her discussion of interest tokens, Good makes clear how content online means more than what the content itself is about—it’s also used to portray a person’s cultural aspirations, social capital, and even sexual desire. Similarly, Barash et al. identifies the importance to a user’s social media post of their image projected, noting how these are typically characterised according to scales such as cool–uncool, entertaining–boring, and uplifting–depressing (209).

Peirce’s tripartite structure of the Sign is a useful tool for comprehending the relationship between users and content. Consider the following hypothetical example, indicative of a typical example of curated content: a poster publishing on Facebook their holiday photos, together with a brief introductory comment. Using Peirce, this is an individual act of semiosis that can be analysed according to the following general structure: the Sign is made up of the images and the poster’s text; the Object is the poster herself; and the Interpretant is the resulting thought(s) of another user looking at this Sign. The curated content is a Sign of the poster no matter what, and that is because the poster has published this content themselves and it is literally attributed to them, through their name and profile image. But of course the meaningfulness created from this structure also depends on the user’s collateral experience of the poster.

The poster of curated content is always present as the Object of the Sign and, insofar as this presence is based on their publication (and/or republication) of content to the platform, the Sign–Object relation is principally indexical. However, and as will become apparent below, there is scope in the structure of meaning for this physical “presence” of the poster to appear otherwise. The poster’s indexical presence is ostensibly more complex as they can also be absently present—for example, if they post without commenting, or simply “Listen to…” or share content. More complex still is how a share involves a different kind of presence to posting and “liking.” It is reasonable to say that each kind of presence has a different effect on the meaningfulness of the Sign. Also, consider the effect of the poster’s comment, should they choose to leave one. Based on Peirce’s phenomenology, a poster could write a comment that makes some conceptual claim (Thirdness); or that simply points to the content, similar to the function of a demonstrative pronoun (Secondness); or that is designed to excite sensations in the mind (Firstness)—for example, poetic text in the manner of a haiku.

Analysing another hypothetical example will help clarify the semiotic mixes potential to content curation. Imagine a close-up image of a steak, posted in Facebook. Accompanying the image is the linguistic text “Lunch with the work crew.” The Sign is the image plus the text; the Object is the poster (in this case, “Clinton”); and the Interpretant is the idea created in the mind of the user, scrolling the feed of content on their home page, who perceives this Sign.

The most obvious and salient way this Sign works is as a statement of actual fact; that is, the comment states an activity and, in terms of its relation to the image, only has a “pointing” function and provides information about its Object of actual fact only. From Peirce, this class of Sign is (IV), a Dicent Indexical Sinsign.

There is also the potential, however, for this particular Sign to motivate a more conceptual or generalised interpretation of the poster. The use of slang in the text would resonate with a certain group and result in a more generalised interpretation of Clinton—for example, “Just smashed this steak after some fun runners down south.” In this text, a certain group would understand “runners” as waves at the beach, and therefore this Sign is representative of its Object as a surfer, and, more complex still, perhaps as a privileged surfer since Clinton clearly enjoys surfing on a weekday—in other words, he’s not a “weekend warrior.” From Peirce, this class of Sign is (X), an Argument Symbolic Legisign. But another user may interpret this Sign in a slightly less complex way, equally valid and important. Perhaps they don’t “get” the surfing slang in Clinton’s comment, but they understand a surfing reference has been made nonetheless. In this case a user might interpret the Sign in the following way: “He’s making some comment about surfing, but I don’t understand it.” From Peirce, this class of Sign is (VII), a Dicent Indexical Legisign.

But what if Clinton simply posted this image of the steak with no text? In this case the user interpreting the Sign is directed to the Object (“Clinton”: the profile that posted the content), but the Sign does not describe anything about the Object. Instead, “The sign deals with possible evidence that some relations have been connected, and thus indicates some previous state of affairs” (Chuang and Huang 347). From Peirce, this class of Sign is (III), a Rhematic Indexical Sinsign.

As a final example (which by no means concludes the analysis of this Sign), what if Clinton posted this image by way of a like only? The effect of the like is to determine the poster as less “present” than they would be had they only posted the content, or shared it, or left a comment on it. Despite the fact that the like still shows the poster as curator—and, ostensibly, publisher—of the content, determining their indexical presence, the like also allows for an iconic Sign–Object relation. As was mentioned earlier, “Nothing in itself is icon, index or symbol” (Deledalle 20). Given the poster’s iconic representation by the Sign, the poster is interpreted as a possible Object. What happens is that the qualities of the content would be interpreted to resemble some possibility of a person/Object. The user has a vague sense of somebody, but that somebody is present more as a pattern, diagram, or scheme.  From Peirce, this class of Sign is (II), a Rhematic Iconic Sinsign.

Conclusion 

This paper aims to identify and describe the structure of meaning underlying the proposition, “We are what we curate online.” Using Peirce’s tripartite Sign, it is clear that the content a user curates is representative of them; in terms of the different ways users engage with content, it is possible to begin to classify curated content into different kinds of Signs. What needs to be emphasised, and what becomes apparent from the preliminary classification undertaken here, is that another user’s interpretation of these Signs—and any Signs, for that matter—depends on the knowledge they bring to semiosis. Finally, while this paper has chosen deliberately to engage with the structure of meaning underpinning an individual act of curation and has made inroads into a classification of Signs produced from this structure, further semiotic research could take into consideration the conditions under which the Signs are created, in terms of software’s role influencing the creation of Signs and a user’s collateral knowledge.

Appendix

Given the breadth of Peirce’s work and the multiple and often varied definitions of his concepts, it is reasonable to consult a respected secondary synthesis of Peirce’s semiotic. The following tables are from Deledalle (19).

Table 1: The Three Trichotomies of Signs

 

1

2

3

Representamen

Object

Interpretant

Qualisign

Icon

Rhema

Sinsign

Index

Dicisign

Legisign

Symbol

Argument

 

Table 2: The 10 Classes of Sign

“All expressions such as R1, O2, I3, should be read according to Peirce in the following way: a Representamen ‘which is’ a First, an Object ‘which is’ a Second, an Interpretant ‘which is’ a Third (8.353)” (Deledalle 19).

 

R

O

I

 

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

R1

R2

R2

R2

R3

R3

R3

R3

R3

R3

O1

O1

O2

02

01

02

02

03

03

03

I1

I1

I1

I2

I1

I1

I2

I1

I2

I3

Rhematic Iconic Qualisign

Rhematic Iconic Sinsign

Rhematic Indexical Sinsign

Dicent Indexical Sinsign

Rhematic Iconic Legisign

Rhematic Indexical Legisign

Dicent Indexical Legisign

Rhematic Symbolic Legisign

Dicent Symbolic Legisign

Argument Symbolic Legisign

 

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Keywords


semiotics; software; curation; social media; Peirce



Copyright (c) 2015 Roger Dawkins

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