Social meaning

Posted: June 28, 2008 at 11:40 am in community, people

LP’s comment on my Social Objects post made me realize that I needed to clarify what I meant by “social”. My last post drew a bunch of new readers (thanks to Hugh Macleod’s Twitter) and I could see how my position might have been misinterpreted based on that post alone.

The crux of the comment was rebutting my claim that everything important is social, citing writing, reading, studying, and exercising as solitary activities that provide meaning in an environment without distraction. I think I was unclear about what I mean by “social”. It’s a bit funny to me to be called an extrovert, as I’m a person sitting alone in my studio apartment writing to the Internet, which is pretty much as solitary and introverted as it can get. To be clear, I agree completely that solitary activities are important; I need several hours of alone time a day or I get really cranky. And, as the commenter observes, there are many things that are only possible alone – certain activities like coding or writing require no interruptions and the undisturbed time necessary to get into what Csíkszentmihályi would call Flow.

However, I still hold to my original point, which is that our communities are what create meaning for us. Even those that are not social in an extroverted sense need to have their identity validated by other people. They may participate in online games or communities. They may belong to a poetry club. An extreme example is somebody like Ramanujan, who worked alone with nobody understanding him, until he sent off his theorems to Hardy as somebody who could evaluate his work. He didn’t have any way to judge himself, to decide if he was brilliant or crazy, until he found a community that validated his results. Even mathematical proofs, a solitary activity, required social validation to imbue the work with meaning.

To take a Klosterman-like hypothetical, what if one could achieve one’s greatest goal but not be able to tell anybody about it? I would have a very hard time with it, and I don’t think I’m unique in that respect. Even if our great experiences were done alone, they achieve greater meaning when shared with the people we value. As several of my classmates said at commencement, the program didn’t feel done until we had the closure of the ceremony where they could stand up in front of their families and receive a piece of paper, even though all the work had been done a week or two before.

Another example is rites of passage. One does not go through a rite of passage in secret and not tell anybody. The rite of passage must be performed in front of the community and acknowledged by the community to have meaning. This is true of commencement as noted above, bar mitzvahs, promotions at work, or anything else I can think of. The rite of passage is not the specific actions that are performed – it is the performance of those actions in the eyes of the community and the actions do not have meaning without the community’s acknowledgment.

I may be overplaying the social community angle, but I think that communities are the building blocks of identity. When we say who we are, we express it by which communities we belong to: I’m an MIT graduate, a technologist, a geek, a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. We may have different personas within those communities, but the intersection of all of those communities defines our identity. So I believe that we can’t construct meaning for ourselves without relying on those communities.

There are millions of events happening in the world at any point in time, and our communities filter that stream by telling us what’s important. In a broad generalization, Republicans watch Fox News, Democrats read the New York Times and listen to NPR. Their reality is defined by which events those media cover and the spin that is placed on those events. Things that may be important to one community may be meaningless to another; for instance, most of my friends don’t care at all that the Cubs are in first place, whereas that is fairly important in parts of Chicago. Information and events only have meaning as threads that bind a community together (e.g. the way a friend and I used to sprinkle our conversation with quotes from Buffy).

I hope this clarifies some of what I was talking about in the previous post. I sometimes forget how my world view is somewhat non-standard, and that I need to articulate and clarify the assumptions I am making, rather than expecting readers to pick things up from context. Being in my brain means I can drill down into greater detail on any particular point, but I tend to stay at the top level and infer the rest (see: Generalist) which can be confusing to others. If you’re curious about my thoughts about how community impacts identity and everything else, see the community tag of this blog.

P.S. One of these days I’ll get back into a blogging rhythm, but this week was a bit crazy at work and I was zonked a bit from being on West Coast time. I also need to catch up on some book reviews here. Ah well.


brilliant or crazy: The difference between what is brilliant and what is crazy comes down to what one’s communities accepts. What does it mean to be crazy? Most of us would point to somebody who is different than everybody else in ways that we don’t understand. For behavior to be non-crazy, the community has to find meaning in what a person is doing. This doesn’t necessarily have to be one’s immediate physical community – it could be a community on the Internet, a book club, or any other grouping of people that validates our behavior. Growing up in a Republican fundamentalist Christian town, I sometimes wondered if I was crazy because wow, I thought differently than anybody else I knew. Fortunately, I eventually got to MIT, and found my home community to provide the social validation for the person I was trying to be all along.

2 Responses to “Social meaning”

  1. Steph Says:

    It’s interesting. I find that I’m reacting really strongly to this in a “wanting to argue that meaning does not have to be social” kind of way. But I haven’t got coherent *thoughts* about it yet, just a strong gut reaction that says, “The things I do/think/believe/feel/write/whatever have meaning regardless of whether they’re validated. _I_ have inherent meaning regardless of whether I’m externally validated.” You’ve given me some good things to sit with, in any case. :)

  2. Ryan Says:

    Perhaps a succinct way to summarize is that, while in recognizable social situations, the most meaningful part of the activity is not necessarily the end game of the activity itself, but the connections that are made with other participants throughout the vehicle that is the activity?

    Sure, there are many endeavors in which social interaction is not necessary for satisfaction, but in the interest of your argument, those endeavors are neither here nor there.

    At least that is what I’m taking away from it. :)

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