Saturday, 19 December 2015

Semiotics of Virality: For an Epidemiology of Meaning.

 The new call for papers for Lexia - Rivista di semiotica n° 24 is something Gabriele Merino and I have been working on in the past few months, under the supervision of Massimo Leone.
We believe that is time for semiotics to confront one of the most challenging concepts of the Internet era: virality. What communicative mechanisms, strategies and dynamics are hidden under this umbrella-term that seem to imply that Internet users are mere zombies, infected vessels of an external virus on which they have no control?
That's what we'd like to investigate in this new number of the prestigious journal of semiotics "Lexia" that we will be honoured to edit.


Full text PDF (w/ Italian, French, and Spanish translation):
Lexia, the international, peer–reviewed journal of CIRCe, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Communication of the University of Torino, Italy, invites contributions to be published in issue n. 24 of the new series.

 The topic of the forthcoming issue is “Semiotics of Virality”.

1. Virality?
Users, media, professionals, and scholars talk more and more about “virality”, referring to online communication and, in particular, to social networks. This folk category is a vivid metaphor but lacks heuristic value. It describes what happens to texts that are said “viral” without shedding any light on their nature and functioning. They ‘infect’ social discourses, ‘spread like wildfire’, etc. But what are their features? How are they created? How do they propagate? How are they used? What effects do they have on users? Do they identify a homogeneous class? In addition, the image of contagion carries deterministic and reductionist connotations. It gives Web-users a passive role (‘infected’ subjects do not act, they are objects of action) and seems to endorse the hypodermic needle model (incompatible with the semiotic epistemology).
“Virality” is an umbrella term. It identifies an immensely heterogeneous set of texts and the dominant mode of their appropriation in the contemporary mediasphere. It turns the peculiarities of successful web-texts into something unspeakable and ineffable. Hence, it hinders the creation of specific tools for describing these texts, analysing them, and foreseeing their development. If randomness and accident play an inevitable role in these communicative processes, they are neither their only constituent nor the most important one. Defining a text as “viral” is almost meaningless. It merely tells us that it is rapidly spreading and gaining an important position, at a given moment, among online discourses.
Semiotics is the discipline that studies texts and their pertinence: it allows one to find connections beyond differences and to make distinctions within homogeneity. Hence, it should be able to pinpoint commonalities and singularities in the wide and manifold sets of texts that circulate in the Internet. The discipline of meaning relies on the most rigorous and versatile tools for analysing forms, usages, and transformations of both online practices and texts. So–called Internet phenomena, viral phenomena, and Internet memes represent one of the most fertile macro-areas for the semiotic analysis of online textuality, yet they have been almost completely ignored by the discipline.

2. The place of semiotics
Nowadays, semiotics seems incapable of keeping pace with the increasingly rapid reconfiguration of communicative and media systems, which nevertheless constitute its chief area of interest. A “semiotics of new media” exists, but new media such as Internet and social networks, not to mention their mobile and locative declination, have not been yet made the object of systematic inquiry. In other words, we do not have a “semiotics of Internet” as we have a “semiotics of painting”: namely, an applied semiotics, based on the general theory of signification but capable of taking into consideration the specificities of its objects of analysis. We are not claiming that a “semiotics of Internet” is necessary but that starting to systematically apply semiotics in order to study Internet would be highly desirable.
This semiotic standstill is not only caused by the unstable nature of the object of analysis (ever changing and updating systems, albeit anchored to- and integrated with- everyday life) but also due the discipline itself. Semiotic epistemology is not the problem. More likely, the issue stems from the methodological and analytic habits of semiotics: in particular, from the relationship of the discipline with technology, meant as a tool, not as an object. In other words, sociometric semiotics — that is, semiotics applying its principles and tools to verifiable and quantitatively relevant corpora — is yet to come. Semioticians have neglected a potentially fruitful area of study to the exclusive benefit of engineering sciences that, while embracing different paradigms and employing various tools, nevertheless find their common fetish in numbers and measuring practices: hence, the contemporary obsession with big data.
The possible role of semiotics within this scenario — which is getting more and more complex, selective, and hostile to approaches that are not immediately prone to be monetized — is twofold. On the one hand, semiotics features a consistent theoretical tradition and a strong, inter-defined, meta-language. On the other hand, it can deliver rich ethnographies and fine-grained qualitative analyses of any area of inquiry or corpus. As a matter of fact, semiotics is capable to take into consideration some fundamental dimensions of communicative processes and meaning–making practices that would otherwise be ignored by statistical tools and automatic analysis: humour, for instance, that is inevitably connected to a context, to the pragmatic dimension of a text, and to tacit, often highly specialized encyclopaedic knowledge.

3. Semiotics of virality
This issue of Lexia aims at filling a conspicuous gap in the literature, both in the semiotic tradition and, more broadly, in social sciences. The goal is to investigate the notion of “virality” in order to question it and go beyond it, thus outlining the guidelines for an “epidemiology of meaning”: a rigorous study of the meaning–making systems that regulate the creation, transformation, and spread of online contents.
Senior scholars and young researchers from different disciplinary fields are invited to submit their contributions on the topic of virality and its epistemological, theoretical, and methodological implications. Different perspectives are welcome, provided that they look at virality from a semiotic and communicational perspective. On the one hand, Lexia welcomes theoretically-oriented essays, exploring the current literature on virality and seeking to elaborate new models in order to further our understanding of the phenomenon. On the other hand, Lexia also welcomes analytically oriented papers, with the focus bearing on specific case–studies.

Bibliography -

Here is the expected publication schedule of the volume:
June 15, 2016: deadline for contributions
July 15, 2016: deadline for referees
September 15, 2016: deadline for revised versions of contributions
December 15, 2016: publication of Lexia n. 24.

Contributions, 30,000 characters max, MLA stylesheet, with a 500 words max English abstract and 5 English key–words, should be sent to Gabriele Marino ( and Mattia Thibault (
Languages: English, Italiano, Français, Español [other languages if reviewers are available].

Friday, 4 December 2015

From the Strong with love:
a month at Rochester's museum of Play.

Since November the 16th I have the pleasure of working on my researches in a wonderful and rich environment: The Strong Museum of Play
The museum was founded in 1968 by Margaret Woodbury Strong, a prolific collector of everyday objects, especially dolls and toys, and today encompasses almost 10000 m2 of exhibitions, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library (where I spend most of my time) and Archives of Play, the Woodbury School, the American Journal of Play, and  an awesome (alas not open to the public) warehouse full of toys, boardgames and artifacts, with an uncanny resemblance to the Indiana Jones' warehouse...

The Strong also offers three research fellowships, among which the "The Strong Research Fellowship" which I was honoured to be awarded with. 
The project I'm working on – which will be part of the PhD dissertation – aims at investigating the relationship between toys and meaning, focusing in particular on three different dimensions of the way this artefacts operate in a semiotic level: 
-The intentio auctoris: how toy makers, designers and companies try to and actually convey knowledge, meaning and cultural values through their creations; 
-The intentio lectoris: the semiotics aspects of the actual toy-play, that goes far beyond what the authors have imagined (see Sutton-Smith 1986) and make use of toys as means of self expression (see the works of Winnicott and Erikson) or as instruments to explore the world, both physical and semiotic. 
-The intentio operis: how the physical characteristics of these artefacts are able to influence and direct the way they are used and interpreted (see the works of Latour and Verbeek). 
A meaning-centered approach to toys, combining these three points of view, should be up to the task for an in depth analysis on toy-playto place side by side with those proposed by developmental psychology and social sciences. 
The topic, as some of you may know, isn't completely new to me, but the opportunity of analysing extensively different kinds of toys and toy catalogues, here at The Strong, is being fundamental for the advancement of the research!