MAS 964  ·  Techno-identity  ·  Spring 2005

Instructor: Judith Donath
Tuesday 2-4pm  ·  room E15-335
Credits: 0-12-0 (H)

Identity Signals



Much of what we want to know about other people is not immediately 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 about or what the future will hold, we rely on signals, which are perceivable indicators of these qualities. Thus, I may interpret the stories that your friends tell about you as a signal of whether you are nice; your breathing rate and facial expression as signals of whether you are angry; 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.



Feb 01 Introduction: signals, identity and design
Feb 08 Signaling theory
 costly signals, convention signals, indices, game theory
Feb 15 Social identity and impression formation
 what do we want to know about each other?
Feb 22 Presidents Day (monday schedule of classes)
Mar 01 Gossip and reputation
 social control, credibility, varieties of reputation systems
Mar 08 Social networks and status
 displaying affiliations, manipulating information and the structure of a society
Mar 15 Fashion and time
 The forces of imitiation and differentiation; signals whose form changes with time
Mar 21 Spring break
Mar 29 Markets and attraction
 meeting people
Apr 05 Signaling in conversations
 medium effects, language as signal
Apr 12 The face
 intentional or inadvertant indications of emotion and intent; what are emotions
Apr 19 Design for signaling
 applying this theory to conversation interfaces, visualizations, self-representations
Apr 26 The not quite human other
 Turing, the knowability of other minds, the ethics of why we care
May 03 no class: sponsor week
May 10 Final project review


  This course is a reading and discussion 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 questions of online identity and interaction.