Small Worlds can Hide the Truth

Small worlds give us social structure and help us make sense of how we fit into the greater society. But sometimes they can also prevent important change from happening by narrowing our world view.

Let’s dig into some theories of information seeking behavior to see if there are patterns we can optimize to ensure that lasting social change finally comes.

Digital Literacy Relies on Information Seeking Behavior

Digital Literacy is more important than ever in light of the enormous societal change to which we currently bear witness. However, it is becoming harder and harder to parse the information that is coming our way, let alone evaluate its relevance, because of the sheer volume of information.

This article by Sonja Blignaut: Resist the Urge to Simplify Stories discusses how humans we try to simplify stories to make sense to our own world views. What happens in times like these, where several concurrent social changes are happening at once (police brutality, nightly protests, a deadly global pandemic, mass unemployment) with an enormous amount of information about them all (some of which is vital info but some is propaganda)? From the article:

The question now is whether the old American mantras, the appeals to traditions of democracy and the rule of law, still work—or whether they have now become just another competing narrative in the information war.

Why do humans seek to simplify the story instead of digging for the root of problems? Maybe examining information theory can help us understand this.

Small World – Group Signature

Humans are social beings. One way we make sense of our worlds is through the groups, or small worlds, to which we belong. Dr. Elfreda Chatman was one of my professors at FSU, she applied ethnography to researching information seeking behaviors of small worlds, especially the poor, elderly, retired women, female inmates, and janitors.

We all belong to various small worlds, and our continued membership in these groups impact how we search for information. For example, to remain an insider in any given small world, you have to conform to that group’s signature (or style). The signature defines how a group will handle events, topics that can or cannot be discussed, and how members can interact with each other and with outsiders.

If your friends or family members react very negatively when you repeat things like “Black Lives Matter”, you may decide your membership in those small worlds is worth so much to you that you must abandon your own search for more information on the topic. To satisfy your information needs, you may settle for a simplified answer that is palatable to your small world.

Information Imposters

Another thing that hijacks an individual’s effort to find out more information on a topic is information imposters. Here’s a definition of information imposters:

Information impostors are persons within a small group that give the illusion of having knowledge. They jam the information social system with their own psuedo-information, shutting down the information seeking process. In effect, they claim to have given all the information that is necessary, telling members of the small world that they do not need to seek for any more information.

via notes in Dr Chatman’s class

We are blessed (cursed?) with an abundance of information. We carry powerful computers with us everyplace that can be used to satisfy any need for information. And there are many information imposters that happily jam social media with half-truths with the goal of aborting our quest for information. These imposters count on you being so overwhelmed with information that you’ll accept the simple story, even if it’s not the truth.

Since nation states and even national leaders play the role of information imposter, it is very important that we don’t accept the simple answers to complex societal questions we’re facing now. It is very important to use digital literacy skills to evaluate information, and to keep digging for the truth.

One Nation, Indivisible

There is no escaping it: our nation was built on stolen lands by stolen people. And here we are, several centuries later, dealing with the fall-out. Y’all it’s time to figure out what must be done to address that traumaThe beautiful promise of America is not that we’re a melting pot. All of the small worlds that make up the social fabric of our country are permeable, but it is better when we they don’t blend together in some homogenous fondue. You may not be a member certain small worlds but you can be a guest, as long as you don’t break the norms. I like to think that’s how we got the blues, and things like gumbo.

America is like an amazing pot of gumbo

Real Talk

Being good guests in other small worlds is what helps us understand different experiences. It helps us make that amazing gumbo. And this is the beauty of our great nation, what makes it possible to be one nation, indivisible.

If we can’t figure out how to navigate the permeable part of small worlds to heal our collective trauma that beauty goes away. I’d like to challenge you to check out the very unfortunately named Defund the Police idea. It looks to get the police out of the social services business, taking the funding they use to fund new social programs to address some of this trauma.

What do you think? What are ways we can stop accepting the simple answers, avoid information imposters, and make the entire world a better place? Let me know in the comments.

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