Semiotics of Pictorial Signs on Social Networking Sites: Remarks on a Neglected Field of Study

Julius Erdmann

Punctum, 1(1): 26-42, 2015
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2015.0003


The paper aims at considering characteristics from one field of contemporary visual studies that has for a long time been neglected in academic research: Pictorial signs on Social Network Sites (SNS) are an outstanding class of semiotic resources that is greatly shaped by processes of technological and collective sign production and distribution. A brief examination of the scholarly research on the pragmatics and semiotics of pictorial signs on SNS shows that the heterogeneity of visual signs is often neglected and that it mostly concentrates on one aspect of these pictorial signs: their technological production or their purpose for individual self-disclosure. The paper therefore considers the semiosis of pictorial signs on SNS in a holistic perspective as one the one hand produced by individual and collective meaning making as well as on the other hand a product of technological framing. It therefore develops a techno-semiotic pragmatic account that takes into consideration both processes. Starting from a prominent class of pictorial signs on SNS during Tunisian Revolution, the Tunisian Flag graphics, the paper than shows that communicative and social interaction functions on the graphic interface of SNS (‘like’-function, sharing and commenting option) are not only directly inscribed into the pictorial frame, but also greatly influence the reading of a pictorial sign. The location of images on the SNS’ interface has an impact on its meaning and on the social functions of a pictorial sign, as profile pictures are directly linked to the online identity of the user. Through technological sign processing, the polysemy of the image is reduced. We therefore consider the images on the one hand as individual self-narratives and on the other as instances of SNS’ visual culture that brings out dominant visual codes but also allows social and political movements to spread.

KEYWORDS: Internet; Social Networking Sites; visual culture; socio-semiotics; Tunisian Revolution
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