Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Meaning-Making Machines

Grandma Powazek once told me why she stopped making cucumber salad. She’d been chopping cucumbers when her hands started to hurt. She thought the cucumbers caused the pain.

It’s logical, of course. Her hands hurt when she was chopping, and felt better when they weren’t. It’s also completely wrong. Her hands hurt because she was developing arthritis. But no amount of lecturing from my dad could change her mind.

In Yiddish this is called bubbe maisse – it literally means “mother stories” – but we all do it.

Our brains take a ton of input and turn it into narrative stories to help us understand the world. Imagine your brain sitting in a movie theater, watching the flashing screen. It takes those separate images and creates a story around them, just like you’re taking these individual words and turning them into something more than a string of definitions.

What’s interesting is that if you take away some of that input, our brains work twice as hard to fill in the gaps. In one of my favorite Radiolab episodes, they talk to fighter pilots who have experienced out of body experiences and found that, when the brain is deprived of input, it can create elaborate virtual realities on its own.

This is relevant online because we have much less input than in real-life social situations. Virtual communications like email, blog comments, and instant messages come without the associated social data our brains are used to. In the absence of context, our brains fill in the rest. What we fill it in with is a byproduct of our own insecurities. (I’ve written about this before as The Big Mirror.)

Recently a researcher named Jennifer Whitson published a study in the journal Science called “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception.” She did an experiment with two groups that were given a test. The “powerless” group was told that their answers were half right, half wrong, no matter what they said. The “in control” group were told that their answers were right.

Both groups were then shown a series of images of random static. Here’s the interesting part: The people in the “powerless” group were more likely to see images in the static – to find meaning in chaos – than the people in the “in control” group. So, while all our brains are meaning-making machines, the results of this study show that stressed out brains work harder to find meaning. They literally see things that are not there.

I think this is fascinating because it begins to explain the old question: Why do normal people become jerks online? Sure, people are more likely to act out when they think they’re not being watched, and the screen contributes to that. But why is that so? Maybe it’s because their brains are working harder to create meaning in the online chaos, and the meaning their stressed-out brains see is one where they’re justified in lashing out. After all, every child’s first excuse for a fight is to insist the other kid started it.

All of this is just biology. You can’t tell a person that what they’re seeing or feeling is not real and expect them to believe you. So what to do? The NPR story on the study contained this juicy bit at the end:

In a different experiment, she asked volunteers who were feeling a lack of control to talk about a personal value that they consider important. When these people were shown fuzzy, meaningless images, they did not see imaginary objects. Maybe this could help in real life, Whitson says. When you’re feeling powerless, maybe you should stop and think about what you really care about — something you do have control over.

In addition to being a great tip for individuals, this is something community designers should think about. How can the interfaces we create to collect community participation give the user an “in control” feeling? If they did, I believe the user’s participation would be more positive.

This also puts some science behind what we did instinctually in Fray. When you tell a personal story and ask the user to reply with the same, it’s one of those “in control” experiences – just like the experiment that asked people to talk about their personal values. I’ve always believed that storytelling is empowering, because when you tell a story, you become its owner (instead of the other way around).

Everything we experience in life is a story we tell ourselves. As a creator of, or participant in, online community, remember that you’re much more in control of your story than it sometimes seems.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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