Section 1

Semiotics and its role in meaning creation in the context of discussion lists

Engaging in the act of communication is an attempt at conveying meaning. I have already said that my focus in this dissertation is on Communities of Practice and we must understand they are engaged in some sort of valued exchange of information or knowledge.

Where knowledge or information resides within an entity and there is a desire for another to be privy to it, it needs to be made available.

Many academics believe semiotics to be useful for an understanding of human communication in the context of information systems (IS). Here, it would be sensible to say that I am taking information as being something meaningful (from Checkland's concept of "information equals data plus meaning"[1]). Computerised IS rely on the manipulation and interpretation of symbols, which lie at the heart of semiotic theory, to achieve communication. Email, as a component of IS and the medium of communication in focus here, is characterised by the use of text and thus, symbols. The approach used in semiotics is so broad I am not claiming to understand its many facets. Semioticians would be just as much at home applying semiotic theory to music as they would in applying it to communication, thus I have chosen to take on board some aspects, highlighted by a number of authors, significant to CMC (Computer Mediated Communication).

Semiotic theory refers to an approach to understanding the use of signs and how meaning is inferred from them. It is useful to us in our understanding of communication a it deals with understanding the meaning of signs which are fundamental to communication processes and the possible meanings inferred by the collation of these symbols in messages such as email.

Signs can be classified as icons, indexes and symbols[2]. An icon is a representation of an object, visually or perhaps as a metaphor or equation. Indexes are inferences of causal links, e.g. a charge indicator shows you how much power is left in a battery. Symbols are potentially arbitrary references to objects within a formalised system such as language. However, it is argued that no single meaning can be attributed to a sign due to the lack of a clear-cut link to the object it represents and the isomorphic nature of the system, as well as the subjective perspective of those who may interpret it.

Here, I would like to focus on Mingers' (1996) evaluation of theories of information at the semantic and pragmatic level and how this influences the attribution of meaning. Avoiding a pedantic approach to understanding meaning, Mingers focuses on "active utterances aimed at understanding and agreement"[3]) rather than their individual components ( the words) and his approach could be encapsulated using Habermas' terminology as that involved in 'communicative action'[4]).

As a background to the field of CMC being explored, it would be useful to have an understanding of the general principles surrounding the phenomena associated therewith and as a further background to understanding how semiotics plays its part. The most widely accepted model of communication is Shannon and Weaver's 1949 mathematical theory of communication[5]. This takes an empirical focus on the transfer of a message (information) from the point of view of a telecommunications engineer. That is, it concerns itself solely with how a digital message is transferred from sender to receiver through a telecommunications network and the effects of noise sources that distort the electronic signal during this process. However, this lacks any aspect of human involvement due to its focus on data processing. Warner enhanced this model by putting signal transmission and reception in context with its social constraints[6].

It can be accepted as a given that, in the 'connected' world at least, our technological systems dealing with communicative processes have reached an efficacy that would preclude worries on the part of the sender about whether his message is received in the exact same state as it was sent. With little or no physical distortion to the messages received by email nowadays, we need not concern ourselves with technical processes or methods when examining CMC as an aid to social activities at this level of enquiry, although they would be relevant when looking at access to ICT. Understanding the use of ICT as an extension to human (social) activity systems "must allow for the (partly) interpreted and negotiated nature of social reality, accepting that signs and symbols are always open to multiple interpretations by different observers and in different contexts"[7].

Statements communicated in the domain of VCs are intentional: they are sent with a degree of purpose on the sender's part. This purpose could be said to be an attempt at reducing the receiver's uncertainty (Mingers). It is assumed that if we are to look at the information generated in relation to its relevance to the community's purpose then we must look at the pragmatic nature of the information which should be "that which removes the doubt, restricts the uncertainty, reduces the ignorance, curtails the variance"[8]. That the information must be meaningful in the context of purpose makes the potential meaning of the message dependent on the subjectivity of the recipient; the recipient will interpret the message and attribute meaning to it by means of his own cognitive processes. A repeated message will herald no new information for the recipient as already entered into their "prior knowledge and expectations"[9]. Neither will a message about the eating habits of plankton sent to a a discussion list about flag design have any direct relevance to its purpose and thus, at least theoretically, contain no new information and potentially increase uncertainty.

The subjectivity of meaning creation and intentionality of messages implies that cognitive processes are involved. Mackay's Conditional Probability Matrix[10], by exploring the changes in cognitive states brought about by the receipt of a message and its 'selective information content', allows us to understand somewhat that the purpose of a message is not to influence the behaviour of the recipient but to influence their subjectivity and thus their Umwelt (or experience of the world). This then allows the communication (and thus sharing) of experience. Moreover, it could be said that the information may exist outside if the communicative process and therefore it is information that is objective. By inferring meaning we are continually changing our subjective cognitive status by adding to our 'prior knowledge and expectations' we rely on to generate this meaning.

Shank (1993), Shank and Cunningham (1996) describe three cognitive processes of inference in a semiotic approach to CMC: abduction, deduction and induction. Deduction refers to inferences made by taking a sign as a certainty; that is, a specific rule for interpretation. To use Shanks' analogy: the rule is that dogs bark. Induction recognises that this rule, whilst it might happen, may not be a given: all dogs probably bark. Peirce[11] presented abduction as a further tenet to this reasoning which is essentially the equivalent of putting two and two together: I hear a bark, and therefore I can reason that there may be a dog around about.

"Abduction is the basic logic of reasoning to a hypothetical meaning"[12]. On discussion lists hypothetical arguments are frequently put forward, their development stemming from the originating or related utterances takes place by abductive logic. The importance and relevance of abduction is heightened when we look at the style, of both delivery and content, of the discourses experienced in email.

The exocentric approach to communicating via email establishes a detachment from self which shifts focus to the meaning of the message rather than its delivery. Email, as the medium, has inherited, in terms of network efficiency then and now as aesthetically and cognitively practical, constraints imposed when it was first developed. Even though infrastructure no longer inhibits the dissemination of large texts, email continues to consist of the exchange of generally short texts to the point of engendering a distinct "rhythm of communication"[13].

Dissemination of a message is not restricted by time and space for delivery. An email can be sent to anyone anywhere in cyberspace, although guaranteeing its receipt depends on whether the intended recipients can connect to the Internet and then read their email. In this environment, short bursts of written discourse have replaced the traditionally slow exchange of ideas backed up by several pages of prose sent by snail mail. Threads (see below) more often than not develop in directions other than that intended originally[14]. From this type of communication characterised for its "point-for-point statements and rebuttals"[15] which provoke rapid interchanges of ideas and points of view, we are left with the distinct feeling that we are engaging in a hybrid of 'oral' communication[16]. If we are then to explore this sense of orality in our electronic discourses it would make sense to understand what mode we are engaging in.

There are various modes of spoken discourse generally known as conversation which we are familiar with and engage in during our daily lives. There is the monologue experience from the lecture theatre; the turn-taking dialogue with our friends and family; and the discussion orchestrated by the chat-show host. However, whilst these various modes can be applied to how we may conduct discourse over the Internet, we must remember that email lacks the immediacy of the above modes. Moreover, email does not contain the verbal nor non-verbal cues inherently essential in oral or 'presenced' modes of communicaion such as tone, register and gesture which contribute heavily to our understanding.

Shank (1993) and Shank and Cunningham (1996) have proposed the 'multilogue'[17] model which is well suited to capturing the essence of discourse as it is carried out on email discussion lists. Notwithstanding the fact that email is a text-based medium and so carries certain cognitive and practical constraints which preclude the development of long argumentative statements as is traditionally associated with text-based discursive structures, its use as the medium for Internet communication extends the importance of being clear when generating an intentioned statement.

Through the multifarious company of participants developing a particular thread, that is, its beginning as a message sent to the list by a single sender and the responses generated by it and sent by other multiple participants, the linguistic mode of the multilogue is realised. The multilogue is the drawing together of messages responding to a particular thread and the others generated by the other's appearance not according to any linear scale or imposed temporal dimension whilst other threads are developing that allows us to appreciate what multiloguing encompasses: many people in the same room, who can all talk at once with all that is said being heard by each at equal volume and clarity, and when and where they want to hear it.

While we may be happy to have achieved a level of discourse which is characteristically and intrinsically inclusive we are also are concerned with how, from the mist of multiple hypothetical interjections and possible linkages between threads, meaning can still arise.

To continue with semiotics with a few more words, we can consider how 'abductive multiloguing'[18] has been proposed as a way to describe the particular mode of communication via email on so-called discussion lists. Here, both the concepts of abduction (cognition) and multiloguing (social interaction) are applied to the bringing together of disparate threads through interlinking participation to bring meaning to the experience. As we are learning as part of employing our abductive capacities in the act of experiencing within a defined environment, we are thus taking part in situated learning.

Whilst semiotics is valid as a theoretical basis for understanding how meaning is generated, we must understand that we must be engaging in meaningful communication, and this "meaningfulness is...not primarily on the technicalities of 'meaning'"[19]. If it were then we would thus be concentrating solely on the semantic approach to linguistic communication and not the Habermasian view of 'universal pragmatics' or 'communicative action'. Having said that, there is no other means at present to communicate (for distributed CoPs) with the ease and functionality of email without manipulating text-based signs to create meaning. It rests on participants to make sure that, whilst aware of the semantic aspect in intentioning their utterances, they are practicing a pragmatic (i.e. meaningful) mode of discourse.


Section 2: What's the CLIMATE like in your community?

1.Checkland (1990), p.55.

2.Shank and Cunningham (1996), pp31-32.

3.Mingers (1996), p.189.

4.Ibid. Also known as 'universal pragmatics'.

5.Shannon and Weaver (1949), p.7. Also see Figure 1 in Appendix 3.

6.Warner (1996), p.17. Also see Figure 2 in Appendix 3.

7.Mingers (1996), p.190.

8.Nauta in Mingers (1996), p.197.

9.Mingers (1996), p.198.

10.Ibid, p.199.

11.In Shank (1993) and Shank and Cunningham (1996).

12.Shank (1993).

13.Kolb (1996), p.15.

14.(back)Begging one to ask if there can be an original intention to the meaning of the message as it is inevitable that multiple individual interpretations will arise.

15.Kolb (1996), p.16.

16.Shank (1993)



19.Wenger (1998), p.51.