What your friend had for dinner actually does matter

What we learn to do we learn by doing.
— Aristotle

Learning: something we’ve been doing since birth. We aren’t born with a whole lot of knowledge, but most of us are born with the capacity to absorb sensory information around us and build meaning out of it.

It is something we do almost unconsciously. Every time you read a sentence or watch a video you are learning something. Even if it's just a sentence about what your friend is having for dinner, you are still consuming a piece of information and making meaning out of it. The meaning might be insignificant, boring, or judgemental, but you are still processing that bit of information.

One great thing about the human mind, and our ability to create a meaning for something, is that our perception can change based on a change in circumstances or time. The meaning we create around a certain subject can be modified, an undefinable number of times, after the initial meaning is established.

A great example of this is in relationships. While talking with a friend the other night, it dawned on me how meaning shifts rapidly, sometimes without our control.

“I realized, after we split up, that she was actually kind of a sketchy person”, he said,  “I asked her if she’d been seeing anyone. She nonchalantly said no. Later, during a brief visit I noticed two bikes on her porch. I asked her who's the other’s was, and she slyly said, just a friend.”

She once meant the world to him, and deep down, perhaps that meaning did still exist, but he constructed another meaning on top: one of distrust and judgement.

Social Media Meaning

When we find something meaningful or think that others will find something meaningful, we often share it on social media sites. The messages that actually get read convey the author’s meaning, and then the reader constructs his or her own meaning for the message. This probably sounds familiar to anyone who has taken a basic communication class.

The key to this social world is its power to lead us to thinking or acting in a certain way. Something that catches the attention of many, and is deemed “meaningful” gets shared, sometimes, on a very massive (bigger than traditional "mass media") scale AKA “going viral”.

What are those messages?

One example was the recent  ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. A worthy cause indeed, that many found meaningful and took the internet by storm. It really showed that people could share meaning around a common goal - funding ALS research - and have fun doing it. Many people were happy to share that meaning and participate. It was something people could be proud to mimic, but mimic it was, indeed.

Mirror Neurons

Our very biology promotes mimicking those around us. Emotions are contagious and so are actions. We unknowingly act out what we see others acting out. How do babies learn? By mimicking the parents or caretakers. The same behavior works through media, social or not, and continues as we age. A fashion trend is only so because of the media used to advertise it. A viral video only because so many share it. 

The dark side

What about those messages that don’t necessarily “go viral,” but are still consumed by some subset of the Internet population, and are sending a negative meaning to the media consumer?

One example of this, recently in the news, is Eminem rapping about raping Iggy Azelea. Her response brings it home with the fact that her 14-year-old brother is a huge Eminem fan. What is Eminem, a music icon, teaching him and hundreds of thousands of other people with these lyrics? What subsequent meanings are people making about themselves and the people around them, and how is it reflected in the messages they share?

You must unlearn what you have learned

We have the power to shape the media landscape. What we prosume (produce and consume) on social sites influences those who read our thoughts, click our links, and share our stories, whether we think so or not. Maybe it’s only on a very tiny subconscious level, but the energy behind those messages adds up, and is passed to the reader with each tiny piece. The Small Act of simply noticing the intention behind something you’re reading or writing has the power to shift this landscape toward it being a more positive tool. Awareness is the first step.

 

Why should you care?

The internet is not going anywhere anytime soon. It will only become more prevalent. It’s a way to reach people - it is an everyday part of life for many, including younger generations. We are bombarded with media, and it subconsciously alters our thoughts and perceptions about life, reality, and our sense of self, whether we are aware it is doing so or not.

The iPhone - a conduit for media - hasn't even been in existence for 10 years, and it started a “smartphone war” - now if you’re “with the times” you've got to have a smartphone. Same story with MySpace and Facebook. Now all these other social sites have cropped up so we can send (predominantly, but perhaps subconsciously, attention seeking) messages to mostly acquaintances or complete strangers. Something unheard of 15 years ago is now part of every day life for billions of people around the world. 

Where is your awareness in all this?

What do you want your mind to grow? What do you want to learn? You don’t have to be a saint, but share the good stuff because remember, it’s contagious.

The mind grows by what it feeds on.
— Josiah G. Holland