Semiotics is the study of making meaning, the connection between a sign or symbol, what it comes to represent and how it is understood by different people.

How we dress, the music we listen to, the individual words we use in conversation all convey specific meanings.

The field of Semiotics is part of a long tradition of philosophical thought about how humans use language to represent the world.

Today, semiotics provides a template for the analysis of how the symbols that flow through how media devices and screens shape how we understand our social world.

Perhaps the most famous modern Semiotician is Ira Glass, the host of the long running radio show This American Life. This American Life has set the standard structure for many of the podcasts that we listen to today, presenting an overarching theme for each episode and in three acts, dissecting that theme with intimate stories exploring a more universal truth.

Glass himself graduated from Brown with a degree in Semiotics in 1982. When interviewers ask about his background in semiotics, he often responds with the prank played on him after graduation, where his parents took out an ad in the local newspaper’s job section saying, ‘Semiotics major wanted, high pay, no experience necessary.’

But in the 20+ years of his radio program, Glass is known for perfecting a storytelling structure, in uncovering the mechanics of a good story, one that connects with listeners in meaningful, often personal ways. Glass credits Semiotics with informing his approach to storytelling on the radio. In his words:

All semiotics is interested in is one thing: how does the story work on us as a reader? How does it hook us in? How does it give us pleasure? Why is it pleasurable when a story resolves?

For Glass, semiotics is not interested in the literal meaning of signs but rather the paths they follow to become meaningful to us. What associations do we have with certain signs, words, symbols or images?

In a simple way, semiotics is more interested in a kind of storytelling: the process of making signs meaningful and why they are meaningful to different people. 

Semiotics asks, what narratives around a sign or symbol are created? Why are people drawn to some signs over others? What makes people click on a headline, follow a link, or read a whole story?

Here an understanding of Semiotics is helpful on two fronts: in constructing and producing meaningful signs and narratives as communication professionals and in deconstructing the meanings of signs and narratives as empowered media consumers. It is both the production and reception of a message.

In semiotic terms, what is the relationship between a sign and what it signifies to us?

Signs and Signifieds

A sign is anything that produces meanings. It does not just convey meanings, or suggest meanings, it is a source of production, where meanings can be strategically made.

A sign can be an image, a text, a collection of images, words and representations that can produce multiple meanings to multiple people.

What the sign means to you conceptually, is the signified. Signs both act as signifiers, they communicate, while at the same time they embody a meaning, a concept that is signified.

A simple example is a physical sign that says ‘Open.’ If we see a sign that says ‘Open’ it usually signifies a shop that is open for business.

To understand signs, we code them in different ways, beyond what is simply shown in the text. In front of us, or on our screens. We ascribe what is called meta-linguistic information to the sign, additional information that may be cultural or social.

If we are in a foreign country where we do not know the language well, we may look for other signs to signify that a shop is open or closed: Lights on or off, people in the shop, a list of trading hours on the door.

We may also code signs differently according to medium as meta-linguistic data.

We may interpret an image on SnapChat as more casual, more real, a bit more fun than the same image on someone’s Instagram page. We know that Instagram is more curated, with photos carefully selected to last for months, while SnapChat feels more temporary, even spontaneous when photos and captions can disappear quickly.

For Ira Glass and the rise of podcasting, radio as a medium feels more intimate for storytelling, mimicking a conversation between the speaker and the listener and connecting the personal to the universal and back again. To connect with a listener on a personal level, Ira Glass selects a number of signs, words or images from the very beginning of each program.

Here is a simple example:

‘My wife told me about this thing that-- honestly, this is news to me. You know when it's like the height of summer and you go out, and a feeling when the sun is just like really hot and hitting your skin and making you all warm? She likes that feeling. She likes the way that feels.
And I don't know what this says about me, but the notion that anybody would like that had never occurred to me. Totally eye opening because I have never been into that feeling at all. To me, the heat of summer is just something you had to get through. It was like rain, but less wet.
And since she said this, this summer I've been trying to practice it. I've been trying to reprogram my own experience of the summer. And so when I'm outside, I consciously tell myself, the sun's hitting me. I'm going to enjoy this, get into it. And I can kind of get myself there for a little while. And then I lose it. I can't hold onto it. I just think that some of us really love the summer. And it is not something that you can force.

If we listen to the clip with a semiotic ear, we hear the following at play.

Ira begins by talking about his own hatred of summer, compared to his wife’s love of summer. He provides a number of signs that signify feelings of summer to many people: humidity, the feel of the sun on your skin. He does so under the assumption that the audience either loves or hates summer and that one of these signs will signify something meaningful to his audience, whether positive or negative. He then draws the audience’s attention, along with their tactile summer sign, to a narrative about a random man in Long Island, NY.

Semiotic signs and signifieds operate on two levels that are referred to in Semiotics as connotations, the associative meaning of signs, and denotations, which refers to the literal meaning. 

In Ira’s case, the connotation, the associative meaning of the word ‘summer’ is either the pleasurable feeling of the sun on your skin or the miserable feeling of being drowned in humidity.

On the other hand, signs and signifieds operate on the level of denotations, the literal meaning of a sign. Summer is 3 of the hottest months of the year. This is true if you live in Australia or Canada. A denotation is the common meaning a sign can have for multiple audiences.

In contrast, the connotation of summer in Australia vs Canada is very different. In Canada, summer is a break from harsh winter weather where in Australia the connotation of summer is associated with the most intense weather of the year.

Connotations can change and multiply, where denotations are more fixed.

Glass is a master of signs and signifieds, coding, address and narrative. He pulls this off in less than two minutes. He has pulled this off in the first two minutes of the nearly 600 shows he has recorded.