Meaning wars

Origi­nally posted: http://​​bear­​​mean­ing-wars/​​

Every­one thinks the at­ten­tion game is about at­ten­tion. It is (of course) but it isn’t. It’s about mean­ing. We give at­ten­tion to the things that we find mean­ingful. At­ten­tion be­ing a rough proxy our brain pro­vides for mean­ing. That means we spend time on, think­ing about, shar­ing the ideas, in­for­ma­tion and ex­pe­riences we find mean­ingful. The mind-chang­ing ideas, the dis­cov­er­ies, the strong emo­tions. The im­por­tant stuff right?

Well no. That’s not always what we spend time on. But let’s look con­cretely at some ex­am­ples. Think back to when TED talks first started. Enough of us had the ex­pe­rience when we first watched the videos and got at­tached to the feel­ing that we’d just par­ti­ci­pated in in­sight­ful and valuable in­for­ma­tion. But then we clicked next video and did it all again. And again. And again. Un­til even­tu­ally 8 hours later we felt stale about the whole idea of re­ceiv­ing an epiphany in a video in bite-sized form.

I don’t watch TED talks any more and I have to ask my­self why, and how that fits in the world of me want­ing in­sights and epiphany. Are these videos in­ter­est­ing but not ac­tion­able? That’s rele­vant but it’s off the mark.

So why did we click, and why did we pay at­ten­tion? And why did it all go wrong? How did things get un­stuck? Th­ese videos call our at­ten­tion, but don’t mat­ter to us. Even though they are fas­ci­nat­ing and at­trac­tive. An info-haz­ard: be care­ful or you will be sucked into “many-ted-talks”, where-did-my-af­ter­noon-go?


Well—mean­ing. We seek mean­ing. We seek to mat­ter, and we seek to do things we care about. (this is not in­sight­ful, it’s ob­vi­ous).

When you watch your first video, it’s pretty new, it’s unique and in­sight­ful. The sec­ond de­liv­ers the same. And the four­teenth? It doesn’t mat­ter how in­ter­est­ing this one is, it’s prob­a­bly not the same won­der­ful feel­ing as the first video. It’s get­ting to be the same de­liv­ery of in­for­ma­tion. De­spite be­ing ex­cit­ing, it’s also get­ting old. It’s los­ing its mean­ing...

We start out want­ing mean­ing, we start out get­ting mean­ing, and af­ter a while we don’t re­ally get the same thing any more. We are not de­signed to no­tice mean­ing wear­ing off—we ex­pect it to keep be­ing there. Un­til it’s well and truly worn out so bad that it’s a shock to the sys­tem. The same way that we go blind a lit­tle each day and don’t no­tice un­til we crash a car. “that’s how blind we are”.

I think there is in­sight in the ap­pli­ca­tion of mean­ing to differ­ent cul­tures and how they share in­for­ma­tion, how they share nar­ra­tives and what they share.

SJW culture

How differ­ent cul­tures do mean­ing is worth ob­serv­ing. A SJW cul­ture shares mean­ing by de­scribing, pack­ag­ing and shar­ing the emo­tions as­so­ci­ated with out­rage and offence. It mat­ters that peo­ple are get­ting hurt and it mat­ters that we are fix­ing that. It mat­ters more than joy and hap­piness, it mat­ters to raise the baseline. I had a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­rience as I was first start­ing to no­tice mean­ing. I went on a date with a per­son who was part of So­cial Jus­tice cul­ture. They in­sisted on ask­ing about poli­tics and tel­ling me some key ex­pe­riences of pain and out­rage that some­one they knew had ex­pe­rienced.

At the time I in­dulged by hear­ing the story. And at the time my defences against 3rd party emo­tions kicked in. I just can’t bring my­self to care about 3rd hand out­rage. At first I was con­fused, why this story? Why tell it to me? That’s when I re­al­ised that this story that was be­ing shared be­cause it mat­tered. Be­cause it was mean­ingful to this per­son and be­cause be­ing able to con­nect over these strong emo­tions is how some­one in this cul­ture vets their po­ten­tial dates and their qual­ities as an em­pathic per­son. I failed. And I could tell as it was hap­pen­ing that I was failing. But it was only days later that I re­ally worked out how and what I had failed at.

In a cul­ture where shar­ing the ex­pe­rience of strong emo­tion by one per­son - and be­ing em­pa­thetic of that ex­pe­rience is how we con­nect, we need to find those sto­ries to share, and then share them.

The core of what is mean­ingful in this cul­ture is shar­ing that emo­tional ex­pe­rience.

4chan culture

The 4Chan (and shared to the alt-right) cul­ture I ap­pre­ci­ate con­cep­tu­ally so much more be­cause of what it does. It was around be­fore So­cial Jus­tice but it grew stronger in re­sponse to the So­cial Jus­tice cul­ture. It de­rives it’s mean­ing from cre­at­ing out­rage, then shar­ing it. The most out­rage you can stir up, the more at­ten­tion you can get, the more butt-hurt, the more jim­mies you can rus­tle, the bet­ter. In that cul­ture we can cel­e­brate the suc­cess of cre­at­ing out­rage where there pre­vi­ously was none.

On the in­ter­net, in the early Bie­ber days, 4Chan cre­ated var­i­ous, “shav­ing for Bie­ber” and other sad-for-Bie­ber phe­nomenon. A dual ru­mour that was shared round the in­ter­net was:

  1. Justin Bie­ber had can­cer.

  2. You should shave your head in ac­knowl­edge­ment/​soli­dar­ity for the fact.

The thing about shock and awe and how this gen­er­ates max­i­mum out­rage, is that not only is 1 not true but 2 does not at all fol­low. It’s not clear if, whether; and how many teenage girls were caught in a mis­in­for­ma­tion storm, and quickly shaved their head, only to be em­bar­rassed when they found out the lack of truth to the mat­ter.

It’s never go­ing to be clear what re­ally hap­pened. Whether a few peo­ple shaved their heads for the cause and were later em­bar­rassed. Whether a few peo­ple had shaved heads and then de­cided to join the band­wagon since they fit, and were later em­bar­rassed to have done so. It’s not clear if any­one at all fell for it.

But in the 4chan cul­ture, the cre­ation and prop­a­ga­tion of such a ru­mour is part of what the cul­ture loves. What is mean­ingful is to make the most out­rage. It’s a win if any­one shares the story, it’s a win if any­one in­dul­ges the story, and it’s an ex­tra win if the con­ven­tional me­dia out­lets get on board with it. That’s what’s mean­ingful. That’s how you get sta­tus, you get at­ten­tion to your out­rage gen­er­a­tion. It’s might be un­der­stood as a “troll” but I be­lieve that loses in­for­ma­tion. Mean­ing, and how it is as­signed in this cul­ture adds in­for­ma­tion to the ex­pla­na­tion of why troll.

Of course these two cul­tures en­joy hat­ing each other, it’s in their na­ture. SJ can’t stop be­ing out­raged and shar­ing the out­rage they feel around the 4chan be­havi­our, and 4c can’t stop find­ing ways to gen­er­ate out­rage and get them­selves talked about. In fact each cul­ture helps the other stay al­ive and grow. Be­cause it’s about mean­ing.

Th­ese two cul­tures help each other to grow each other’s mean­ing maps. Each could ex­ist with­out the other. There will always be events to be out­raged at, and there will always be peo­ple mak­ing out­rage where they feel the op­por­tu­nity pre­sents for the fun of it, but put these two cul­tures to­gether and they fuel each other.

Face­book At­ten­tion Wars

In the Face­book world, each user is limited in time they have each day. Each user can only give at­ten­tion to a small frac­tion of the po­ten­tial in­for­ma­tion that is served to them. Face­book is not AI smart yet. If it’s an ar­gu­ment, a dis­cus­sion or the cat pic­tures. Face­book only knows that you did par­take. Face­book is ag­nos­tic to the rea­son that you par­take. And in an effort to keep you do­ing so, it serves you similar con­tent (in a vari­able fash­ion to keep you ad­dicted to in­ter­mit­tent re­ward).

It’s com­monly know that the Face­book al­gorithms are out to get you, they are de­signed to max­imise “time on site”. If you cu­rate your feed so that you get to see the in­ter­est­ing, rele­vant (and mean­ingful) things. All you end up with is a more at­trac­tive place to visit. i.e. you do Face­book’s job for it, of at­tract­ing your eye­balls and keep­ing you there.

Face­book is con­stantly try­ing to guess at what you want to give your at­ten­tion away to, what you find mean­ingful, and serv­ing it to you. But it cheats. And it gets it wrong all the time. When was the last time you went on face­book and left think­ing, “wow that’s ex­actly what I wanted from that ex­pe­rience”. I was served perfectly what I wanted to see just now. Never?

And your friends. The “at­ten­tion seek­ers”, post­ing what­ever drivel will get them the most at­ten­tion. They weren’t wrong to try to get at­ten­tion alone, and they weren’t try­ing to post drivel. They were try­ing to post what was mean­ingful to them. (SJ mean­ingful, 4c mean­ingful or some other kind of per­son­ally mean­ingful). If you find it inane drivel then that points to differ­ent val­ues, car­ing about differ­ent things, find­ing mean­ing in differ­ent places. In seek­ing at­ten­tion they were only seek­ing a proxy for mean­ing (A very good proxy). If some­one is giv­ing you at­ten­tion—that can be mean­ingful to you. A per­son giv­ing you at­ten­tion re­minds you that you are im­por­tant, that you mat­ter. That ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion of the mean­ing we all seek. That’s what re­ceiv­ing at­ten­tion is. Val­i­da­tion in a va­ri­ety of forms that what we care about it.

  • Val­i­da­tion that I agree with what you have to say

  • Val­i­da­tion that we are in the same group/​tribe or similar in some way.

  • Val­i­da­tion via re­spect of each other’s time and ideas

  • Val­i­da­tion that your ex­pe­riences are sig­nifi­cant or rele­vant to me

  • Val­i­da­tion that what you find mean­ingful is what I find meaningful

If you don’t like what some­one is shar­ing, post­ing—how some­one is try­ing to get at­ten­tion. You are say­ing, what is mean­ingful to you is not mean­ingful to me. And so we fail to con­nect with each other, we Dare Greatly (book by Brene Brown), put our­selves out there, shoot for the stars and ac­cept what­ever form of con­nec­tion we cre­ate, or fail to gen­er­ate by putting out our mean­ing. Or we don’t. We an­swer, “how are you?” with, “fine, thanks” and suc­cess­fully stay safely pro­tected from mak­ing shared mean­ing and some­thing to con­nect over.

In Brene Brown’s the­ory, it’s called nec­es­sary vuln­er­a­bil­ity. It’s nec­es­sary to be vuln­er­a­ble by tak­ing a risk and shar­ing what “mat­ters to you” in or­der to even have a chance to con­nect with other peo­ple at all. Brene stops there, be­cause her re­search was in build­ing con­nec­tion, in cre­at­ing lov­ing re­la­tion­ships. I want to go fur­ther to say we do that for the im­por­tant pur­pose of find­ing lov­ing re­la­tion­ships mean­ingful to us. And some of us don’t find them mean­ingful, or don’t ex­pect that we will, so we don’t worry about it.

There are other forms of mean­ing. Just like watch­ing too many TED talks leaves us with a feel­ing that some­thing is miss­ing. Spend­ing too much time on Face­book also leaves us with a feel­ing that some­thing is miss­ing. That is be­cause we also get mean­ing from other things. Mean­ing from at­ten­tion is catchy. It’s self sus­tain­ing. But we have so many kinds of mean­ingful things, ex­pe­riences, ideas, imag­i­na­tion, cre­ation, feel­ings—cu­ri­os­ity, legacy, re­li­gion (list of com­mon hu­man goals).

What’s mean­ingful to each of us is what­ever we in­her­ently think is mean­ingful along with what we choose to think of as mean­ingful. And in that sense, any­thing is mean­ingful. If you want it to be.

Every­one wants mean­ing. That’s it. To live a mean­ingful life, think about what you find mean­ingful and do more of that. Or. Alter­na­tively. Think about what you give your time and at­ten­tion to. This is your re­vealed prefer­ences about what you find mean­ingful.

Want to live a mean­ingful life? Just live. The mean­ing is there by what you give your en­ergy to. Don’t like giv­ing your en­ergy to some­thing? Maybe it’s not what you find mean­ingful. Or you think the pay­off is not go­ing to mat­ter.

Do you work for the money? Or do you do your job for rea­sons that mat­ter to you above and be­yond the money… Is your job mean­ingful? or does ev­ery­thing you do from 9-5 add up to what you end up do­ing with the pay­check at the end of the day.

What if you live and find noth­ing mean­ingful in any­thing you do or see?

Then… (you might be de­pressed, if noth­ing mat­ters) Noth­ing is mean­ingful. The mean­ing is only there if you want it to be. Sur­prise. It sucks to live like that. You will find your defences prop­ping up all the time about it. It’s un­com­fortable to think that you lack mean­ing in your life. The cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance type of un­com­fortable. The kind of un­com­fortable that has you re­as­sur­ing your­self that X or Y that you do does in fact mat­ter. Or dou­bling down to­wards your cookie clicker, far­mville or ir­rele­vant other goals in the hope that if you achieve that, the feel­ing of mean­ing will be there. Ex­actly where you want it.

Or maybe you will go in­ves­ti­gate what other peo­ple find mean­ingful and you will end up in re­li­gion or poli­tics or fam­ily or any num­ber of ar­eas that other peo­ple pur­sue, seek­ing your own mean­ing.

Don’t be­lieve me about mean­ing? Read Martin Selig­man—Flour­ish (hap­piness isn’t all of the equa­tion of hu­man wellbe­ing), Jor­dan Peter­son—Maps of mean­ing (mean­ing comes from nar­ra­tive), Brene Brown—Vuln­er­a­bil­ity (we need to be vuln­er­a­ble to con­nect to one an­other and that’s re­ally hard), And Mar­shall Rosen­berg—NVC (NVC is big but the part rele­vant is the ac­knowl­ege­ments and val­i­da­tion that we can provide to each other, even with­out be­ing on the same side.. I might be wrong, but all these peo­ple, they are get­ting onto some­thing that ap­pears to over­lap.

Meta: this took about 3hrs to write, a month to avoid and 2 hours to edit. And I still don’t like it.