The Technocultural Dimensions of Meaning: Towards a Mixed Semiotics of the World Wide Web

Ganaele Langlois
Joint Programme in Communication and Culture, York/Ryerson Universities
May, 2008
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Abstract

This dissertation project argues that the study of meaning-making practices on the Web, and particularly the analysis of the power relations that organize communicational practices, needs to involve an acknowledgement of the importance of communication technologies. This project assesses the technocultural impact of software that automatically produces and dynamically adapts content to user input through a case study analysis of amazon.com and of the MediaWiki software package. It offers an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that borrows from communication studies (discourse analysis, medium theory, cultural studies of technology), from new media studies (software criticism) and from Actor-network theory and Felix Guattari’s mixed semiotics. In so doing, the research defines a new methodological framework through which the question of semiotics and discourse can be analyzed thanks to an exploration of the technocultural conditions that create communicative possibilities.

The analysis of amazon.com examines how the deployment of tools to track, shape and predict the cultural desires of users raises questions related to the imposition of specific modes of interpretation. In particular, I highlight the process through which user-produced meanings are incorporated within software-produced semiotic systems so as to embed cultural processes within a commercial imperative. While amazon.com is an instance of the commercial use of dynamic content production techniques on the Web, Wikipedia stands as a symbol of non-commercial knowledge production. The Wikipedia model is not only cultural, but also technical as mass collaborative knowledge production depends on a suite of software tools - the MediaWiki architecture - that enables new discursive practices. The Wikipedia model is the result of a set of articulations between technical and cultural processes, and the case study examines how this model is captured, modified and challenged by other websites using the same wiki architecture as Wikipedia. In particular, I examine how legal and technical processes on the Web appropriate discursive practices by capitalizing on user-produced content as a source of revenue.
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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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