Juli 14, 2012

Web Semiotics: Web As a Sign System


A "web application", also known as "website" or just "web", is a kind of application which uses client-server architecture built on top of TCP/IP network infrastructure. This has become an important part of every organization in the world. Lots of people around the world use organization's website as the way to find any information about organization, products, quality, and any other things specific for that organization. Therefore, it is important to understand how one can develop a website which will become a representation of the organization. In this sense, we may say that the website has become a sign which will represent the organization. An understanding of the sign systems as the key concepts in semiotics will be important for web engineer.

What is Semiotics?

Semiotics itself is a complex topic. Its root comes from ancient greek although at first it comes from medical things by Hippocrates (460 - 377 BC) to mean essentially a medical diagnosis, a disease based on 'sign' or known as symptoms. It was Plato (circa 428 - 347 BC) who took it away from medical diagnosis with his argumentation that human forms were deceptive things that did not stand for reality directly, but rather as a mental idealization of it (Danesi, 2004). Aristotle (384 - 322 BC), a pupil of Pluto, investigate the relation between forms and reality more closely. There are still many name who has big impact toward semiotics world but since we will not concentrate on historical perspective, we will not go into the details on semiotics history. We will propose some theories which will have impact towards our understanding of Web as a sign systems.

The term "Semiotics" was used by British Philosopher - John Locke (1632 - 1704). At that time, the term was "Semeiotics" (from Greek word "Semeion", means "a sign, a mark"), and it was used in his book "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690). Meanwhile, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913) used the word "Semiology" to denote the study of sign (he used the -logy just as other discipline such as psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology, etc). Charles S. Pierce reintroduce Locke's concept and consistently used the word "Semiotics". Until now, it becomes a strong influence and people tend to use the word "Semiotics" (Danesi, 2004). There are some scholars who made definition about Semiotics. The shortest definition is that it is "the study of signs", while a sign is defined as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity" (Danesi and Perron, 1999). A definition of Semiotics by Ferdinand de Saussure (although he called it "Semiology" in this definition) will be used:

A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable. It would be part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology. I shall call it semiology (from Greek semeion “sign”). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them.

Saussure offered a "dyadic" or two-part model of the sign. He defined a sign as being composed of "signifier" / "signifiant" (the form which the sign takes) and the "signified" / "signifié" (the concept it represents) (Chandler, 2011). In a graphical form, this definition and its example can be represented below (picture was taken from Chandler, 2011):

Different with Saussure, Peirce characterized "triadic" or three-part model of the sign. He defined a sign as being composed of the three elements:

  1. Sign or Representamen (e.g Saussure's signifier).
  2. Object: the thing that represented by sign. This could be physically real object such as "laptop" and "car", or abstract concept such as "bright idea" and "I don't care about the story that you told me and I feel boring".
  3. Interpretant: according to Peirce in his own words: "The Sign creates something in the Mind of the Interpreter, which something, in that it has been so created by the sign, has been, in a mediate and relative way, also created by the Object of the Sign, although the Object is essentially other than the Sign. And this creature of the sign is called the Interpretant" (see Bergman and Paavola, 2003). Simply put, it is the part of sign which is used to denote the meaning of sign by sign interpreter, the sense made by the sign.

These triadic model can be represented with the diagram below (picture was taken from Irvine, 2012):

The Peirce triadic model also known as "The Semiotic Triangle", has some variants. The most well-known variant is the semiotic triangle which proposed by Ogden and Richard in their book which was published in 1923 titled "The Meaning of Meaning" (picture was taken from http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/ch2.htm):

Semiotics and Sign System

Loosely speaking, a website can always be considered as the representation of whatever behind the website, be it a company, a person, business entity, musical band, singer, etc. Using Peirce's Triadic, we may define a website as a part of semiotics and as a sign system below:

It is clear from the diagram that developing website should consider first about "what should be the interpretant"? We may then can begin our adventure to web semiotics by accomodating some theory from algebra, which is now known as "Algebra Semiotics". Surely there are many areas which affect the engineering of a website, for example, social aspect should be considered as an important part, the "knowledge" embedded into the website also make sense as a part of knowledge engineering, while we should not forget also many technical TCP/IP things and all other important software engineering topics related with the engineering of the web, and many others.

In the future, I will dig deeper about Algebra Semiotics and how it probably can help developers in Semantic and Pragmatic Web. 

  • Daniel Chandler, "Semiotics for Beginner", http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Documents/S4B/, accessed July 8, 2012 22:40.
  • Marcel Danesi, Paul Perron, "Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction and Handbook", Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Marcel Danesi, "Messages, Signs, and Meanings: A Basic Textbook in Semiotics and Communication", 3rd edition, Canadian Scholars' Press Inc, Toronto, 2004.
  • Martin Irvine, "Structural Linguistics, Semiotics, and Communication Theory: Basic Outlines and Assumptions", http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Semiotics_and_Communication.html, accessed July 9, 2012 05:45.
  • Mats Bergman, Sami Paavola, "The Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms", http://www.helsinki.fi/science/commens/dictionary.html, accessed July 9, 2012 05:16.


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