Systems of meaning - that which produce culture

Having recently had the pleasure of meeting Nadia El-Imam and being introduced to Edgeryders, I wanted to take the opportunity of further exploring systems of meaning in the culture of today.

Building upon a recent post by Dougald Hine where he delves into the regeneration of meaning and the growing divide being the tradional labour market and the young people who have problems gaining entry into it, an interesting field to observe would be what said young generation find meaningful while unemployed.

As an anthropologist, I find that the key to understanding more about human behaviour is not the study of what we do but how we do it. The big Why resides not in the details of the pattern, but embedded in the threads that connect the dots. Hence, when looking at digital culture-making the important thing is not whether the ‘tribe’ one has set out to observe prefers owling over planking, but instead what social effects and retention these acts have on the members.

Meaning is something deeper than logic and more basic than rationality. It does not have to make sense but it needs to be profound. If we are to believe what heralds of classic social anthropology like Claude Leví-Strauss argued during the 1950s & -60s, the one thing that people do when they meet is to share stories. These stories, often classified as myths in the study of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, were the first item of exchange between new groups of people. After that followed goods and marriage, according to his Structuralist theory.

Building upon this line of thought when observing modern making of culture, where physical and digital life is an ever vexing blend due to mobile technology and increasing bandwidth, one can see that we continue to build meaning from sharing of stories. One face of these current myths, I would argue, is what we know as memes.

Lolcats, gangnam style-dancing and whatever else that filled up your facebook feed today is modern myth making and myth sharing - proliferated across the internet at a viral rate not because of what it contains (something funny), but because of the connectedness and belonging that is inherit in the act of sharing.

Renowned American anthropologist Margared Mead once wrote:

“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Few would doubt the power of the ‘internet natives’ these days, though one could rightly argue whether said power to collaborate and work together tend to result in meaningful action. Just explore the #baldforbieber hashtag.

A few weeks ago, central Gothenburg in Sweden was torn apart by rioting youths who fought with the police in a fit of collective rage fueled by the alleged lies stemming from one Instagram account. Following the data and looking at the threads in the pattern, two things become clear:

  1. The meaning behind it all is so classic it’s timeless - someone started spreading misinformation about someone else and that got the tribe upset.

  2. The channels of communication accelerated the scale, speed and proportion of the event to an arguably unparallelled level. The rage went digital, mobile and off the charts.

The insight from this, and a summary of this post, can be that the systems of meaning that (digitally mobile) youths in post-industrial nations deploy to make their culture are changing. The motivations remain quintessentially human, but the tools and methods by which they are expressed are different (i.e. fast and networked) that it effectively alters the manner of the exchange. The threads of the pattern, as Leví-Strauss might have said, are woven in new ways.

This post is not where I dare make claims about what modern youths find meaningful. It is but a collection of observations to support an idea about how we might start gathering quantifiable data to support an answer.

I believe that it has never been a better time to peer through the looking glass with the eyes of an anthropologist - the internet makes ethnography simple albeit not easy - and truly observe how culture is made at an ever faster pace. The natives of the internet carry the torch in this regard and they will inherit the legacy and frailing institutions of today. We must participate and observe as it happens in order to take part. What to do with the learning that might be yielded from this, I would love to explore together with the Edgeryders community.

For more thoughts like these, feel free to visit my new tumblr

Nice to read you

Hello Sebastian, nice to read you. Not trained in anthropology myself, I can barely follow the reasoning, but I do agree with this: we have a window of opportunity to study ourselves and our networked culture through netnography. Maybe Nadia told you we had a go with Edgeryders 1? The results are here:

Hi Alberto,

I’m sorry if the reasoning is less than clear, I’m trying my best at making these concepts more tangible for people outside the field of anthropology. That is, if anything, the point. It is hard though, and I will continue making it less and less convoluted.

Nadia have given me a lot of information about Edgeryders and I’m working myself through it. That particular text was new to me and I will check it out now. I feel very happy about being welcomed into this community and will strive towards adding value and taking part of the conversation.

anti-ageism rant

Well, apparently it is time for my monthly anti-ageism rant. :smiley:

Sebastian, if you keep defining contemporary network tribes by the narrow age criterion (IMO the weak and PR-ish approach) , you will keep missing three important aspects:

  1. “The threads of the pattern, (…)are woven in new ways.”, you say. Threads are threads and patterns are pattern because they replicate across generations. This generation takes the heritage from the previous one and will leave its heritage for the next one. That is basically what generations do – and hardly anything else.

  2. Most of young people plan and hope to become old people. And they usually succeed. The interesting point is that big bad people we are dealing with at the moment, when they were young, were the ’68 generation, going to change the world without and against ‘anyone above 30′ – see the pattern? :wink:

  3. We are sitting in it together. Whatever world emerges when the dust settles, there will be young people and ‘not so young’ (I appreciate it, Nadia), and simply old ones. And I never heard of a tribe that would survive (let alone thrive) without transgenerational integration. For an impressive simulation, see Lord of the Flies. :smiley:


Hi Petros, and thank you for anti-ageism feedback :slight_smile:

I definitely agree that there is nothing essentially new about how the current young generation, by me loosely defined as those who are digitally adept and find it difficult to achieve traditional employment, operates and behaves. It is indeed the same old pattern, and very human.

The threads are however different, in my view, as they are woven by digital (and mobile) accessibility with instantaneous proliferation of data that comes with this. This makes the old fashioned pattern faster and more accelerated, and by that sheer gravity things start to change. Or rather, happen at much higher speed and scale. That is interesting to observe, I think.

We are in this together, however we perceive or own age and that of others. I’m excited to see what happens, and what will turn out as it always does and what we will find surprising.