MAS 965 · Signalling identity
Instructor: Judith Donath

03.11 · people as signals: the display of social networks



Social groups have structure, indeed, they may have several overlapping structures. There are status hierarchies, networks of connections, clusters of similarities.

In general, there are no explicit maps of these structures. Our knowledge is focused on our immediate social circle: I know who my acquaintances are and from conversations with or about them, I have a limited view of their social location, i.e. who they know, the strength and characteristics of these connections, their position in various hierarchies, etc.

One's social location is an important aspect of identity. It is something people try to figure out about each other - and that people work at managing the impression of social location they give to others.

There are several reasons why we are interested in knowing more about each other's social location and in managing how other's see ours:

People display information about their social location to increase their status and the value of their acquaintanceship. These displays can include such signals as group photographs, mentions of connections in conversation, being seen in public with others, etc. These signals range in reliability. They are also often used quite subtly and only in particular contexts.


1. Please read the essays listed above.

2. Describe 3 examples of the social location display. An example could be a conversation in which someone indicated their connection to others as a way of establishing their own social identity, images that are designed to do the same, etc. Discuss the signaling aspects of these displays - do you think they were reliable? why or why not? What do you think was the motivation for the display? Two of your examples should be drawn from experience and one should be from literature (anything from Edith Wharton to Dilbert).

3. Recently, a number of social networking sites have been created (friendster, orkut, tribe, linkedIn, to name a few). If you have not been a member of any of these, please join one and spend some time exploring it. (I sent a group invitation to orkut. The username is techno-id and the password is seminar. please feel free to modfiy the profile, add friends, etc. as you wish. The reason the username is not identity is that the system noted that "identity has a bad word in it". )

Here, network displays are public and relatively unnuanced. Write an analysis of how this sort of display compares to traditional means of displaying social location information. What are the advantages and disadvantages? Are signals of friendship here reliable? Why or why not? What quality are they actually signalling?

Please submit the URL of your essay by Tuesday evening.