List of forms of communication?
August 15, 2009 8:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to make an large/exhaustive list of different types of human communication, especially (but not at all limited to) the digital variety. Help me out?

This is some general research for an essay I intend to write in the future. I'm open to communications of any type, from things like blogs and email, to speech and sign language, to markets and finger painting.

I've started some lists below, divided into three rough categories (digital, traditional, and abstract). Feel free to categorize or not, to post links to external lists (my Google-fu has failed me), to offer ideas for new forms of communication, etc.

Email, instant message, blog, comments, aggregation sites (HN/Metafilter/etc.), standard websites, wikis, Google Wave, Youtube/video, podcasting, forums, mailing lists, tumblogs, images (Flickr etc.), web-fax, social bookmarking, newsgroups

Speech, sign language, letters, phone, mail, fax, books, magazines, pamphlets, essays, poetry, textbooks, fiction, TV, movies, meetings, signs, paintings, music, radio, Morse code, notes, memos, speeches, lecture

Sex, markets, body language, tone of voice, war, Galbraith's technostructure, status symbols,
posted by Jebdm to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Natives of the Spanish Canary islands communicate over longe distances by whistling.
posted by signal at 8:54 PM on August 15, 2009

traditional: smoke, semaphore, telegraph, graffiti
posted by philip-random at 9:14 PM on August 15, 2009

Digital: code repositories (freshmeat, sourceforge), version control, text messages, USENET, finger, unix talk, VOIP, P2P networks (freenet, for instance)

Traditional: posters, hobo marks, clothes and jewelry (gang colors, wedding rings, arm bands)

Abstract: violence (you said war, but what about a fist fight or a gunshot?)
posted by Netzapper at 10:06 PM on August 15, 2009

Maps. Charts. Graphs. Mind maps. Slide shows. Montages. Graffiti. Substitution ciphers and coded messages in general. Telegraph. Braille. Skywriting. Graphic design. The sign on the Voyager spacecraft. Dance. Opera. The word "help" written in sand. Words spelled out by marching bands or crowds in stadiums. The message in the bottle.

I heard that travelers in the jungle knew that some leaves had white undersides, so they would turn them over as they went along. This way they could retrace their steps by following the white leaves. Communication!
posted by argybarg at 10:31 PM on August 15, 2009

Video games and other programs have interactive tutorials that often time take the place of manuals. Many games (video games, chess, football) also make use of replays as a learning and communication mechanism, where you watch precisely what some previous player went through, and can learn from their successes and mistakes. Also, tooltips and the F1 key.

People in the woods use birdsong and animal cries to signal each other, or so movies have led me to believe. More generally, there is stenography, where one form of communication masks another. (on preview, argybarg got that).

Seismic waves would be another form of communication, i.e. when North Korea tests an underground nuke and the rest of the world reacts to it based on the seismic readings.

Following up on the theme of war as communication, there has been plenty of talk of missile tests and army exercises as forms of communication, or especially in the Vietnam era of high explosives and bombing as a form of communication.

Tattoos, piercings, and scars would be another form of communication. Possibly phermones, though that might be pseudoscience. Finally, flinging poo.
posted by Balna Watya at 11:28 PM on August 15, 2009

abstract: telepathy
posted by amyms at 11:47 PM on August 15, 2009

More generally, there is stenography, where one form of communication masks another. (on preview, argybarg got that).

Steganography is the practice of hiding one channel of communication in another one.*

Stenography is shorthand.

*I think it's difficult to argue that this is actually a separate method of communication. Both signals are, by definition, some existing mehtod of communication. The only thing you're doing is hiding one of them in the other. We don't consider a letter, and a letter in an envelope, two different forms of communication. The same goes for crypto and ciphers, in my opinion: a letter and a letter in a safe aren't different forms.

Codes, on the other hand, totally count. So one lantern in the old church steeple means "they're coming by land". Or the phrase "the aardvark loves bacon" means "start the coup". This is distinct from enciphering or encrypting a plaintext message.

posted by Netzapper at 12:43 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

touch; smell (perfume, cologne etc); non-speech like sighing and humming; fashion; architecture; light (can carry data, romantic lighting); roads; styles of embroidery/quilting; satellite; Voyager Golden Record; memes; viruses
posted by shinyshiny at 1:14 AM on August 16, 2009

ยง23 of Philosophical Investigations:

But how many kinds of sentences are there? Say assertion, question, and command?--There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call "symbols," "words," "sentences." And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten. (We can get a rough picture of this from the changes in mathematics.)
Here the term "language-game" is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.
Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:
Giving orders, and obeying them--
Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements--
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)--
Reporting an event--
Speculating about an event--
Forming and testing a hypothesis--
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams--
Making up a story; and reading it--
Guessing riddles--
Making a joke; telling it--
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic--
Translating from one language into another--
Asking, thinking, cursing, greeting, praying.

posted by phrontist at 2:28 AM on August 16, 2009


... and, to cover all five senses:

facial expressions

scent ("She smells nice tonight! Maybe she wore her most expensive perfume. Guess she likes me." and "The distinctive odor of ____ leads me to this medical diagnosis" and "smelled like a homeless person") - in humans, this tends to be unintentional communication, but not necessarily always.


speech - not only the words, but the tone and above all the pitch of the voice. Pitch, and change in pitch, is significant in many languages on a word-by-word basis (Chinese), but in English, it's actually critical for discerning the meaning and emotional subtext of phrases and sentences. The same sentence will be a question if uttered with rising intonation, but a statement with falling or neutral intonation.

written text, sign language, semaphore, and many other visual media.
posted by amtho at 4:11 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Khipu knot language. ISTR knots were also something of an international language for sailors (or at least a shibboleth).


Russian prison tattoos are surprisingly informative.

Digital: Port Knocking

Edible: Bakers' Marks

Worn: Hanky Codes

I could also mention secret communications by classified ad - see the back of Private Eye for the mysterious Capitaine and Sous-Fifre.

Also comments in programmes as a channel betweeen programmers.

Bach had a penchant for "signing" his compositions. For that matter, dance and musical notation is wonderful!

Polari (in sixties London), Fenya (in 19th-20th Century Russia) as secret languages.

Tugging on a rope when diving? I don't if that's used very often or if it's a "fully fledged" system.

Abstractly, isn't the entire point of a hate crime that it isn't just an act, it's sending a message?
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 5:18 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Benesh notation
Dance is a form of communication.
There is a mentalist trick where a part of the jaw is touched lightly and messages transmitted by touch.
posted by sammyo at 5:47 AM on August 16, 2009

Bach had a penchant for "signing" his compositions. For that matter, dance and musical notation is wonderful!

Shostakovich (DSCH) and others did the same thing - Musical Cryptograms

More broadly - song and singing.

Even more broadly (and abstractly) - programmatic music
posted by dogsbody at 5:57 AM on August 16, 2009

The original "message," from around 380,000 years after the moment of the Big Bang, is the ubiquitous Cosmic Background Radiation. It's not strictly human communication, but it's the message that, once it was heard by humans, quickly shaped our most reasonable modern religion replacements, and most informed our expanding reason.
posted by paulsc at 6:23 AM on August 16, 2009

Fashion/clothing. Playing sports (related to body language).
posted by qmechanic at 6:59 AM on August 16, 2009

I'm finding your question kind of mind-boggling--not in a bad way. It's just so incredibly broad, I don't even know how to start slicing into it. You say you want to write an essay; will this be a research essay, or one that you want to be substantially informed by other people's work on communication? I will go out on a limb and guess that human communication in one form or another is probably the most published-on subject, period. Especially if you include works of fiction that substantially are about people's communication (or lack-thereof).

Anyway, a brief read of the answers as well as your own question gets me to thinking about slicing it a bit differently: into *techniques* of communication, and then types. There are, I think, relatively few techniques, that can then be broken down into a slightly larger number of sub-techniques. This might be helpful for organizing types. Or maybe not: all categorizations are in some cases unsatisfactory

So, most broadly, we have:

Bodily----Vocal; non-Vocal

External----Auditory; Visual

So, further:


Vocal---Articulations of speech pattern (speaking, yelling, singing, face-to-face, at a distance, etc.); articulations not recognized as speech (maybe could be broken into recognizable within a language group--like hmmmm-- or not recognizable)

Non-Vocal--Articulations of speech patterns (as in ASL); muscle movements of the body (which can be broken down into parts of the body: face, hands, arms, etc); expressions of coordinated gross movement (dance, walk, posture, etc)


Auditory---Percussive language/code (Morse code; Asante drum language), Music (with language expressions--i.e. mixed technique; without language expressions), Alarm calls

Visual---Lexigraphic (accounts, published works, stuff carved into trees etc.); Symbolic (paintings, weavings, patterns on objects, etc.)

Modern technology allows for mixing bodily and external communication more profoundly than ever before: a recording is necessarily external, but singing is necessarily bodily. The same goes for movies. To a lesser extent, the same could be said for radio, telephony and video conferencing. I think that email, websites, etc fit fairly well into the external visual technique, although of course depending on the content they can mix other things in.

I don't know if that's helpful, but I think it's how I would go about getting a handle on the list that's been generated here, and especially if you want to start researching more broadly. Those categories will almost certainly breakdown at some point, or need serious refinement, but they could possibly help you with searching, and if you ever needed help from a librarian or professional, they might be helpful in narrowing down your approach a little bit.
posted by carmen at 7:07 AM on August 16, 2009

What a great question.

The aborigine songlines that Bruce Chatwin talks about might be somewhat inspirational. This also makes me think of A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

The shot across the bow... another classic use of communication in war.
Dexter Filkins book The Forever War shows the modern usage of this communicative device and how it fails at night with automobiles automatic weapons.

The white flag, killing the messenger,

I think there is a statue in nevada? warning of radiation that is planned to communicate to any human being the danger present. A quick search has failed me. Maybe it is only planned.

The plates on Voyager? that left the solar system are another attempt.

Labanation sounds very similar to the Alexander Technique.

I would be very pleased to read your essay. Thanks in advance.

Oh, and these answers are why I joined Metafilter in the first place.

My wife and I send coded texts to each other, mostly messages like "olive hue" or "isle of view." OK, now much anymore, but it did hasten the falling in love.

Text novels and haiku.

Another book with my favorite title of the moment is 7 Types of Ambiguity by William Empson.

How about implanting RFID chips. I know one guy did this to open his elevator door. (Or was that a twilight zone episode...) Another guy replaced his missing finger with a flash drive.

How about biofeedback?
posted by mearls at 7:49 AM on August 16, 2009

Digital should involve some mention of MMORPGs and related voice technology (Ventrilo, Teamspeak).
posted by dagnyscott at 8:07 AM on August 16, 2009

I came to offer clothing -- uniforms, expensive clothing, fashionable clothing, functional clothing -- but I see that it's been mentioned. But, if you want to delve more into how we use (with ourselves to send a message, and with others to interpret the message they send) clothing (and many other things) to communicate, you might be interested in reading up on symbolic interactionism.
posted by Houstonian at 9:19 AM on August 16, 2009

You need to look up the archives of the Dead Media Working Group.
posted by Leon at 9:49 AM on August 16, 2009

I love the question and all suggestions are very interesting.
The same landscape should appear through different categorizations;.
Another way would be to start with perceptions (the 5 senses) and work other classifications from there.
For example perception + medium (air, water, paper, rocks, electromagnetism, human skin, etc.).
Then combination of perceptions + medium.

I can't wait to see what you will use.
posted by bru at 11:07 AM on August 16, 2009

Carrier pigeons.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 1:56 PM on August 16, 2009

I think there is a statue in nevada? warning of radiation that is planned to communicate to any human being the danger present. A quick search has failed me. Maybe it is only planned.

It's way more than a statue. It's the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Some information on the "permanent markers" plan can be found in the pdfs returned by this google search and the links on wikipedia.

Basically, they're trying to turn the entire area around the WIPP entrance into the most inherently foreboding place on Earth. It's interesting, because they talk about how do you build a giant structure that says "GTFO, this place is bad" to anybody wandering in from the desert, without some future society thinking that it's a temple or a monument or a settlement or something.

The whole thing is damn fascinating, imo.
posted by Netzapper at 5:28 PM on August 16, 2009

We talked about WIPP twice on the blue (1, 2). Excellent example!
posted by Houstonian at 5:58 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are many domain-specific sets of hand signals, such as those used in aircraft marshaling (eg. start/stop engines, turn to port), glider launching (eg. take up slack, all out, stop) or the operation of cranes (eg. raise, lower, stop).

Symbolic road signs (eg. dead end, no left turn, sharp deviation of route) and their maritime equivalent, buoyage (eg. keep to port, keep to starboard, pass to the south, isolated danger).

Fog horns, which communicate not only the presence of a vessel, but whether it is sailing or motoring; whether it is making way, stopped or anchored; and whether it is turning to port or starboard, or engaging astern propulsion.

At sea, there are many ways of showing that you are in distress: by VHF radio, automated radio signal, arm-waving, signal flags (flags meaning "Yes" and "No" flown together), orange smoke or a red flare, a barrel of burning tar on the deck, Morse code, continuous sounding of a fog horn, explosive signals at intervals of one minute . . .

Arguably, mathematical notation is a form of written communication distinct from normal language. So too are the notations used in chemistry, to refer to the empirical and structural formulae of compounds, the electronic configuration of atoms, and the identity of nucleotides.

Following on from what Leon said, the Dead Media Progject sed to have its homepage at This site is no longer accessible, but is cached by the Internet Archive. The list of Working Notes arranged by category is fascinating.

I also stumbled across a list of resources related to Media Archaeology.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 3:42 AM on August 19, 2009

Another link for WIPP.
posted by Netzapper at 9:32 PM on August 29, 2009

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