Decoding sarcastic texts – Amanda

Prompt: Following on with a specific case: how do we know what a text message, an email message, or social media message means? What kinds of communication acts understood by communicators are involved? What do senders and receivers know that aren’t represented in the individual texts? Our technologies are designed to send and receive strings of symbols correctly, but how do we know what they mean?

I was recently listening to my younger, tech-savvy brother talk about the online dating app, Tinder. On Tinder, you have the opportunity to message complete strangers and get to know them through what is essentially text or instant messaging. I’m fascinated by how people can create meaning over text, and actually get to know each other’s speaking style (in a sense), without ever having to meet one another.

I’ve found myself comparing the idea of a “first message” on Tinder to text message conversations I would have with a close friend or family member. This week’s homework, particularly Dr. Irvine’s video, made me reflect on the meanings that I take away from each type of conversation.

Take, for example, a text message I receive from a close friend I haven’t heard from in a week (in other words, this is the first text in a new conversation). “I am so done, I just want to jump off a building,” my friend writes. Because this is a close friend, I am able to recall past conversations and interactions together, and I am confident that my friend is not suicidal, but instead, she is just being her typical sarcastic self. I might reply with more sarcasm and a note of encouragement because she has sent me a cue that she’s not having a good day, and I am responding in a way that reflects on our relationship. The conversation continues, and I decode her words like I would listen to her talk in a conversation. There is enough that we understand about each other as senders and receivers that, if someone who didn’t know each of us looked at the conversation, they might bot be able to make meaning out of what we say.

However, if a stranger on Tinder sent me a message for the first time and said the same line as above, I would be very concerned and I would most likely feel conflicted. Is this person sarcastic? Or is this person going through a crisis, and if so, how do I help? How would I reply? I don’t know this person, and I don’t know how he or she will interpret my message. There would be a lot of confusion, and I don’t think I would get the meaning of the text that was sent. But I wonder if another visual cue, such as a particular emoji, would help me better understand the context in which the person sent the message and help me better decode what the sender is trying to say?

This brings me back to Dr. Irvines video, where he says, “The meaning of our messages comes from the human symbolic systems that surround them – social uses of technically mediated expression” (5:40). Furthermore, Dr. Irvine explains how we make meaning symbolically “on the fly” – we create the meaning when we perceive the signals, or to put it in other terms, when we decode the data (Irvine, 5). These ideas remind me of some of the basic definitions from the Piercian semiotic model because of the meaning that is typically “imbedded” in the text that we read – but it seems as though the meaning changes depending on who you’re talking to, and more importantly, how well you know the person. It seems as though some ways of speaking through text message, such as sarcasm, is better understood when it is used between two people who know each other well and can take meaning from a set of words that are organized in a specific way. And, thinking back to last week’s reading, at first I wondered: if a sign is not a symbol unless it has meaning, would a text message from a stranger symbolize anything? I think that perhaps it would. I’m also interested in further discussing Stuart Hall’s studies on encoding and decoding as presented in our reading (particularly the television communicative process discussed on page 509).


  • Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During. London; New York: Routledge, 1993
  • Irvine, Martin. “Introducing Information and Communication Theory: The Context of Electrical Signals Engineering and Digital Encoding.”