MAS 961  ·  Techno-Identity seminar  ·  Spring 2006

Instructor: Judith Donath
Thursdays 10am - noon  ·  room E15-335
Credits: 0-12-0 (H)
TA: Christine Liu
Course secretary: Mary Heckbert
Class notes + blog: mas961 blog



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 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.



  This course 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.


Feb 09 Signaling theory
 costly signals, indices, conventional signals; semiotics and the evolution of signals
Assignment: Readings (Maynard-Smith & Harper; Grafen; Guilford & Dawkins; Donath) and essay.
Feb 16 Social identity
 What do we want to know about each other? Prototypes, impression formation
Assignment: Readings (Simmel, Goffman, Holland & Skinner, Donath) and essay
Feb 23 Fashion: signals of status in an information based society
 temporally varying signals in clothing, music, and ideas
Assignment: Readings (Veblen, Thornton, McCracken, Davis, Adar and more...) and essay
Mar 02 Individual identity and reputation
 social control, credibility, varieties of reputation systems
Assignment: Readings and essays
Mar 09 Social networks
 the flow of social information and support in social networks
Assignment: Readings, sketch and essays
Mar 16 Sex, romance and markets for people
 Signaling attraction, in person and online
Assignment: Readings, observation, essays
Mar 23 Gifts
 the messages in social exchange
Assignment: Readings and essays; analysis presentation
Mar 30 Spring break
Apr 06 Design for signaling: Analyses
 analysis of various interfaces, media and situations using signaling
Apr 13 Deception
 Why people lie. Cues to deception.
Assignment due 4/11: Readings and essay: Deceptive signals and the cues to deception
Apr 20 Signaling in conversations
 medium effects, language as signal.
Assignment due 4/18: Readings, observations, essay: Conversations
Apr 27 Prepare for final presentations
  work in teams
Assignment due after meeting: Final project proposals
May 04 The face
  the signals and cues in facial features, gaze, and expression ; creating mediated faces
Assignment due 05/02: Readings and essay: facial signals and mediated faces
May 11 The not quite human other
 Turing, the knowability of other minds, the ethics of why we care
Assignment due 5/9. Readings and essay: the not quite human other
May 18 Final presentations
 presentations about minimalist games, sociable agents and the ethnography of virtual games