Signifiers of Power and Authority in Cyberspace

What this symbol signifies?
What this symbol stands for: loss of control and choice
Not specifically about power, but this is one of the first symbols of ‘control’ and ‘access’ online. We are so used to seeing this sign across web spaces and our computer programs that we don’t think about how intrinsically we associate it, rather, disassociate it with loss of control and access. Because that’s what this symbol stands for: loss of control and access.

I am beginning to see that we need to rethink or reframe the context and ‘seeing’ of power, authority, control and influence in the online context. Perhaps the signifiers of power in cyberspace won’t necessarily be equivalent to that used offline. However, symbols have an unspoken ‘clout’ and it’s implicit that users will understand the ‘culture of compliance’ associated with its use.

There are government domain names and logos that have crossed the barrier from the real to the digital space eons ago and wield authority online, if not power. There is respect associated with government, legal, state and city-level departments’ domains, portals and websites that disseminate factoids. Even official tourism, cultural and educational websites are accorded respect and draw followers.

The logos of applications and programmes in the online world dominate the imagination of offline subscribers too – subscribers of an idea, ideology or meaning. These logos are signifiers of influence and a certain culture. The Torrent file has created a culture of subversion, granting unwritten licenses to users to accelerate piracy and illegal content storage. Today, the four-coloured Windows logo is a prompt entry into a suite of software and tools that a whole many generations of us have come to associate with writing, reading, editing, presentations and surfing – it’s what Cadburys is to chocolates and Xerox is to photocopying. Need I mention YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and other companies in the real world who have created applications for the Web and come to represent dominant ways of doing things online in different categories?

Cyber security and censorship are two important issues that many netizens are debating about. While the tick mark of ‘Verisign’ and ‘Verisecure’ have become hallmarks of trust and safety, the “I Agree” box that we all invariably click and accept are blatant invitations to their alma maters allowing access to our private communications: conversations, chats, photos, messages, links, uploads and pings.

There are those unseen behind-the-scenes machinations that deny us access and limit our understanding of the backdoor and how some things run online. The symbol for passwords – keys, asterisk and circular bullets – and our slow evolution to accepting the ‘browser organiser’ to save, remember and recall our passwords for future log-ins also signifies sharing of control denominators. “…sometimes blankness is the symbol in the online world that is restricting access. The way of control is the lack of a “attach photo” link rather than a visible/present symbol” (Prabhas Pokharel).

Logos online have sought inspiration from their offline signifiers too: the Home symbol on our broswers and the checkout cart image on shopping sites are two such examples

Secondly, have some symbols from the offline world gained more currency in webspace or vice-versa, symbols created online have gone on to become legitimate ones in real world? The shopping cart of the supermarket is now the ‘checkout’ and ‘add to the cart’ symbol online, and our concrete houses are still keeping us ‘Home’ even in cyberspace.

This blog post is a lateral process in identifying the processes of meaning making in the World Wide Web and if there are any comparison parameters to how we imbue symbols with meaning in the real world. I am sure I have left out a host of symbols, images and logos in use online and offline.

Nilofar Ansher

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