I’ve been thinking a lot lately about signals. About how signals are more often than not ambiguous and/or prone to interpretation. Signals are everywhere; everything that commutes meaning or conveys messages is a signal, whether or not that signal is received or understood. So, for instance, when you dial a telephone number and the line rings ‘busy’, that is a kind of signal.

But signals devoid of meaning, or of ambiguous meaning, still convey information; the information conveyed can be misleading or can be, essentially meaningless. In the example above,a busy signal could mean the other party is using the telephone (that’s the most common understanding of a busy signal). But it could also mean that the telephone line is damaged. It could mean that there’s too much traffic on the wires. It could mean that the phone got knocked off the hook by a violent struggle. It could mean the phone was left in ‘talk’ mode when the other party lay back to relax in the bathtub. At any rate, you really have no idea what that signal means except that the person you’re trying to reach by telephone cannot, for whatever reason, receive your call.

Think about the shape of certain clouds. They are signals of coming weather patterns. Everyone who can see can see them, but not everyone knows what they mean. Interpreting those signals correctly makes the difference between merely unplugging the computer system and taking shelter in the cellar.

So I’ve been thinking about signals. About how easy it is to misinterpret signals. About how social networking has introduced a whole new sort of group of signals. Facebook and Twitter are some of the most popular social networks, and both of them are changing the way we interpret signals. Or…no, that isn’t really right.

Here, I’ll tell you what I’m getting at; maybe you can articulate it better. Facebook has what’s called a “Friends List”. The idea here is that you find your friends, add their feeds to your account, and everyone’s happy. But there are a lot of signals at work here: once you “accept” someone as your “friend”, what does that mean? Does it mean you’re actually friends? Does it mean you’re willing to exchange information? Does it mean you *like* one another? And then, when you are removed from someone’s “friends” list, what does *that* mean? Does it mean you’re no longer friends? That you no longer like one another? That you don’t want to communicate any longer?

It’s interesting, because a few months ago, I shut down my Facebook account for a while. I received a bunch of email from people saying “Did I offend you? Why did you unfriend me?”. I found that interesting, because I’d posted a note saying that I was leaving Effbook, and not to be alarmed if I disappeared. So this was still an ambiguous signal.

I guess I’ve just really been thinking about communication lately, and how *how* we communicate things (or don’t communicate things) can really have an impact on what people THINK we’re communicating (or not communicating). I’ve been thinking about body language and scent/pheromones and graphical communication. I’ve been thinking about the signals seeds must receive from their environment that indicate “time to grow!” or “be dormant!”

It’s a little overwhelming to think about, actually.






One response to “Signals”

  1. Katrine Avatar

    I generally assume I’ve offended you in some way and just carry on bubbling away. ;) In reality I realize I haven’t invested a lot of time learning how to read the subtle clues around me. I try very hard to say what I mean, and mean what I say and take what is said to me at face value.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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