Social signalling

Quora, Stack Overflow, Medium, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, et j’en passe.

What do these social networks all have in common? They are more than social networks, they are “social signalling tools”.


First, what is signalling? Signalling happens in an environment with imperfect information (people don’t know much about you and vice versa). To mitigate this problem, we often use a small signal or symbol to hint at something about us (remember, it’s a signal, not concrete proof).

A Harvard undergrad is a signal of being really smart (you don’t have concrete evidence of this, but you know that most people who have Harvard degrees are really, really smart because it’s really hard to get in). A Rolex signals wealth and sophistication (because Rolexes are very expensive and beautiful watches, but in reality, the person in question could be very tacky, or could have just stolen or received the watch as a gift). A motorcycle signals rebellion, thrill-seeking, independence, and adventure. And so on.

In brief, if something makes you assume something else — that’s signalling.


So what do we signal on social networks? And is it an implicit (subtle, hidden from the surface) or explicit (very obvious) signal? Also, is the networking taking place explicit or implicit?


Facebook: Implicit signalling of social success, creativity, wit. Explicit friend networking, implicit amorous networking.

versus:

OKCupid: Explicit signalling of social success, creativity, wit, and physical attractiveness. Explicit amorous networking.

versus:

Instagram: Implicit signalling of social success, creativity, wit. Implicit friend networking.


LinkedIn: Explicit signalling of business or domain expertise or success. Explicit business networking.

versus:

Twitter: Implicit signalling of domain expertise or wit. Implicit business networking.

versus:

Quora/Stack Overflow: Explicit signalling of domain expertise. Implicit business networking.

versus:

Quibb: Implicit signalling of business or domain expertise. Implicit business networking.


College/University: Explicit signalling of intellect and human capital. Implicit business, friendship and amorous networking.

versus:

TED: Implicit signalling of intellect, human capital, or business success. Implicit business and friendship networking.

versus:

SXSW: Implicit signalling of social success, creativity, wit. Explicit business networking. Implicit friendship and amorous networking.


The internet’s social layer brings people closer in the real world by filling in the gaps and providing people with more touch points. This makes hiring, meeting, and getting to know people in the real world easier.


This is an ongoing project, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, if you disagree/agree with the classifications, and if you come up with any cool social network classifications of your own. Tweet me @petitchouia.