Putting social context into text: The semiotics of e-mail interaction

Daniel A. Menchik, Xiaoli Tian

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


E-mail excludes the multiple nonlinguistic cues and gestures that facilitate face-to-face communication. How, then, should interaction in a text-based context be understood? The authors analyze the problems and solutions experienced by a research panel that communicated over e-mail and face-to-face for 18 months, evaluating both kinds of exchanges alongside survey and interview data. Semiotic and linguistic theory is used to expose essential properties associated with the successful communication of meaning in each context. The authors find that e-mail requires the cultivation of new techniques for specifically conveying the "pragmatic information" that connects the meaning of words to their users. Such information is assigned in e-mail through the use of what are termed emphatic, referential, and characterizing semiotic tactics. These tactics are also evident in sustained online interactions studied by other researchers. This theoretical vocabulary represents an alternative to the dominant sociological characterization of e-mail as an inferior substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)332-370
Number of pages39
JournalAmerican Journal of Sociology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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