Radio Berkman 141: Signaling in the Wild, Signaling Online


When under threat from an approaching feline, gazelles will repeatedly leap up and down in the air – even when logically it seems they should run. It’s an example of a signal – used to communicate a concept to trigger a reaction. In this case, “I am strong and fast – if you chase me you’ll be wasting your time.”

What does this phenomenon of nature have to do with human communication online? We give off signals all the time – to deceive, to attract, to manipulate, to provoke reactions and establish impressions of who we are. We have gotten used to practices of signaling in person. But the web has completely changed how we signal.

Judith Donath, founder of MIT’s Sociable Media research group, is completing a book on signaling theory and online communications called Signals, Truth, and Design. Today she stops by Radio Berkman to chat about signaling and human behavior on the web.

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Creative Commons music used this week from Jeremiah Jacobs. Photo credit to moocat.

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Radio Berkman 141

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and just gotten bored? Maybe that weird neighbor of yours is telling you for the thirtieth time his family reunion in Wisconsin – all the potato salad he ate, and the amazing three-legged race in which he and his Uncle Bruno came from behind in the last 20 seconds to win the gold.

Conversations like this are great opportunities to sit back and observe the other person. What are they communicating? (Aside from how tough it is to win a three-legged race when your partner has hyperhydrosis). Pay attention to signals. Look at their body posture and facial gestures. Examine their clothing and hairstyle. Listen to their choice of words and turns of phrase. How close are they standing to you? If other people are listening in, how are they reacting?

All of these signals help you create an impression of people – these impressions in turn help you develop your social world and personal belief systems, engage with culture, and establish relationships of trust.

The awesome part of this kind of signaling and interpreting is that a lot of it happens behind the scenes and at lightning speed – in person, we can look people in the eye, develop an impression, and react appropriately – all within fractions of a second.

Well, that kind of stuff doesn’t work so well online. The truth is the web has kind of rewritten the rules for signaling. In many ways the web is almost autistic – the words we share over social networks are missing a large element of emotional and situational context. Identity online can be easily manipulated, as well, creating huge barriers to trust.

But online identity cues are unique and evolving – presenting amazing new ways of communicating signals that enhance our relationships with others – signals we would have a hard time of replicating in real world situations.

Judith Donath is developing a theory of how human signaling works online – and exploring how online systems could be better designed to improve human communication and trust. We sat down with her late last year to get an idea of how signaling theory works.


Judith Donath is the director of the Sociable Media research group at MIT, and a fellow at the Berkman Center. You can find out more about her, including a link to her book-in-progress on Signals, Truth and Design – at our website,

This episode of Radio Berkman was produced by me, Daniel Dennis Jones, at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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