MAS 960  ·  Signals, Truth and Design  ·  Fall 2007

Instructor: Judith Donath
Tuesday 10am - noon  ·  room E15-483a (Reef conference room)
Credits: 0-12-0 (H)
Course secretary: Mary Heckbert



Signals, Truth & Design


Much of what we want to know about other people is not directly perceivable. Are you a nice person? Are you feeling angry? If we fell in love and got married would you be a good parent for our children? Because we cannot directly know what people are thinking or what the future will hold, we rely on signals, which are perceivable indicators of these qualities. Thus, one may interpret the stories that your friends tell about you as signals of your character; your breathing rate and facial expression as signals of your mood; how you treat your pets as a signal of how you would treat your children.

Some signals are more reliable indicators than others. Lifting a 300 pound barbell is a reliable signal of strength; wearing a T-shirt that says "I'm super strong" is also a signal of strength, but not a reliable one. What makes a signal reliable? The simple answer is that a reliable signal is one that is beneficial to produce truthfully, yet prohibitively costly to produce falsely. Understanding the types of signals and systems that satisfy this condition is the basis of signaling theory.

Signaling theory has been developed primarily in the fields of biology and economics. In this course, we will be refining and extending the theory to model human social interaction - especially online interaction. In the online world, nearly everything is signal. Your height, for instance, which is directly perceivable in the face to face world, is here represented by the (unreliable) signal of the typed words "I am six feet tall".Signaling theory can help us understand the relationship between particular interfaces or media and the social structures that emerge around them. And, it can help guide us in design the online environments of the future.



  This is a reading, discussion and design seminar. There will be weekly reading and writing assignments, which will be posted on the web. Students are expected to actively participate in the discussions. There is a final project (for those whose interest is primarily in design) or major paper (for those whose interest is primarily sociological or theoretical).
This seminar is open to graduate students who are interested in the area of online identity and/or the design of sociable media.



Fulll reading list coming soon. In the meantime, please see past class syllabi (2006, 2005) to get a sense of the material that will be covered.

Sept 11 Course overview, introduction to signaling theory
 costly signals, indices, conventional signals
Sept 18 Signaling theory in depth
 signals of need, semiotics, and deception
Assignment due 9/17: Readings (Donath; Maynard-Smith & Harper; Grafen; Guilford & Dawkins) and essay.
Sept 25 Gossip, ratings, and reputation
 What do people think of you - even if they've never met you?
Assignment due 9/24: Readings (Emler, Kollock, Resnick & Zeckhauser, Dellarocas, Friedman & Resnick) and essay
Oct 2 Social networks
 Social connections, support and personal reliability
Assignment due 10/01 Readings (Wellman & Gulia, Granovetter, Feld, boyd, Donath) and essay
Oct 9 No class - Columbus Day holiday
Oct 16 Social identity and status
 What do we want to know about each other? Prototypes, impression formation
Assignment due 10/15 Readings (Simmel, Holland & Skinner, Goffman, and Jacobson) and essay
Oct 23 Attraction
 Why people like each other- and the deceptions used to make this happen
Assignment due 10/22 Readings (Buss, Miller, Ellison et al, Fisman et al, +more) and essay
Oct 30 Gifts
 the social meaning of presents, favors and free software
Assignment due 10/29 Readings (Bergquist and Ljungberg, Camerer,Glazer and Konrad) and essay
Nov 06 Fashion and innovation
 temporally varying signals in clothing, music, and ideas
Assignment due 11/5 Readings (Veblen, Rogers, Thornton, and many more...) and essay
Nov 13 Words and text
 Email, chat and the architecture of trust
Assignment due 11/12 Readings (Saville-Troike, Voida et al, Tyler and Tang, Ducheneaut, Hancock et al) and essay
Nov 20 Faces
 What is revealed by gaze and expression
Assignment due 11/19 Readings (Fridund, Ekman, Fernandez-Dols and Russell, Zebrowitz and Donath) and essay
Nov 27 Online representations
  Avatars and trust Assignment due 11/26 Readings, interface observations and essay
Dec 4 Why do we care? The ethics of human/agent interactions
 Who else might be thinking?
Assignment due 12/3 Turing, Weizenbaum, Donath, Wada et al) and essay
Dec 11 Final presentations
 Signaling your mastery of this material
Assignment due 12/10: Your final presentation & paper