Symbols and Numbers: Calculating the meaning

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Symbols: signs which must be interpreted in order to be understood

Symbols can be graphic or text. According to Charles S. Pierce, all texts are symbols because they must be interpreted [106 p. 643). Extrapolating from this, we understand that the symbol “A” represents a certain sound and functions in a certain way with other symbols because we have come to culturally interpret it in that manner. (Note that our discussion of anchors also includes text anchors as linguistic elements as well as symbols).

some of the symbols in Marble Springs
From Marble Springs [36], screenshot used by permission

Symbols differ from icons in that the cultural coding to understand their function is not as prevalent. That is, a symbol (for example, a circle with an arrow coming out at an upwards angle from the right side or a cross coming off from the bottom) can be just as culturally coded as those found in icons, but the function to which they would serve as anchors is not yet culturally coded.However, while we understand the image of a circle with a cross at the bottom to represent “female,” we do not know what result will be produced by clicking on this symbol.Thus, when we click on an icon of an image of an envelope, we have culturally come to know what to expect (that is, send an e-mail).

Marble Springs [36] uses symbols to indicate major sections of the work. An eye symbolizes the directory, to see all the stories, a compass symbolizes the map, a key the key to the connections.


Numbers also function as symbols. For example, 0 and 1 are symbols strongly associated with binary computer functions. Strickland's navigation in The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot [61] uses these binary symbols for as a menu to all nodes within the web poem at the bottom of each screen. Anchors in this navigational schema thus have a connotative function, as the binary functions invoke the silicon, sand, computer navigation. A binary line is not usually associated with an action, and Strickland must educate her readers on how to use the binary line: "Choose any gray zero from the navigation bar at the bottom of the page in any order you wish." Thus, readers come to symbols without the same expectations that they come to icons.

Sites often pair a symbol with a text explanation. This can entice readers to click where they might not have been so intrigued with a plain text link. Bankrate [3] uses these symbol/text anchors only in the top menu, to reach specific financial subject areas. FirstGov [18] and BBC [4] both use symbols and text in their children's section, presumably to aid poor readers with additional pictographic clues.

familiar icon pictures
From bankrate [3], screenshot used by permission

Symbols without cultural conventions

It is possible for an author to construct or use a symbol that is not culturally coded with any meaning. When this is the case, readers approach the symbol without any preconceived notions or expectations. When used as anchors, these types of symbols provide authors with the opportunity to inscribe the symbol with new meaning without having to address culturally preconceived notions. Yet, authors must then take the time to instruct the readers as to those meanings.

From Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, screenshot used by permission.

In The Changing Room [8] defines a graphic symbol for each character that graphically refers to the character's plights. These symbols are used consistently as headers and anchors. The anchors use a next arrow overlaid on these symbols to indicate which which character is next on the default reading tour.
From In The Changing Room,screenshot used by permission.
Poems That Go Archives [54] shows a snapshot of each work, and these become symbols of the work--readers learn to recognize the whole of the work through one portion of a screen.
From Poems That Go, screenshot used by permission.

The learning curve required to use symbolic anchors can be quite steep, especially when there are few differentiating marks, as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children [58] demonstrates (left). The text here is not reinforced with the meaning of the symbol but stands in so readers can learn the particular symbol.


Screenshot used by permission.
Throughout their works, Memmott and ] [mez] [breeze] create a creole language of computer symbols and numbers which spills over into their anchors.
Screenshot used by permission.
Lexia to Perplexia [43] uses brackets to set off inserts and portions of code/language.

_][ad][Dressed in a Skin C.ode [44] uses brackets to set off phonemes and portions of meaning/language.