Relational patterns form when we connect feelings in us with feelings in others.
When we encounter a stranger who shares our love for a book, we form an instant connection before discussing it's content, if we ever do. Even life-changing books don't create relationships. Relational patterns form within and in-between people, not objects or ideas.
We can swap out the book in our example and connect around anything we have a shared affinity for: a sports team, religion, or diamond ring. A loved or hated concept is a meeting point that we form relational connections from.
Socially, we're less interested in discussing ideas than feeling the relationships we have to them.
(This isn't to say that the concepts we connect around don't matter. The quality of our thoughts, ideas, and tools largely determines the stability and vibrancy of our relationships. We'll explore this aspect more in a future essay.)
But before we make relational connections with others, we must first relate to ourselves.
Since each of us forms relationships at the intersection of shared likes or dislikes, we must first develop some sense around what we like and dislike. So we form relational connections to ourselves that shape our self-concept or identity.
Our identity is better understood as an evolving pattern than a fixed type. We aren't born with a sense of identity: it shapes slowly from mimetic or introspective relational connections. In this essay, we'll focus in on mimetic connections:
Memetic connections shape our identity through comparison to others.
At around six months of age, we begin the long journey to differentiate ourselves from others: Who's safe and dangerous? Who do we like and dislike? Who am I like and not like? We gradually define ourselves within our "in-group" and view everyone else as our "out-group."
As our in-group matures, we develop increasingly complex social signals to show we fit in: patterns of dress, unique ways of talking, rituals, beliefs, and interests. These spread organically to generate feelings of belonging and transitive self-worth.
In the relational world, we desire objects and ideas because others signal their value – not because of their intrinsic worth.
When we also desire something, it's value to others increases a little more. This cycle of mimetic desire accounts for much of our beliefs and actions.
The popularity and prestige of a finite object, idea, or person are directly proportional to our groups' desire for it:
1. The scarcer the object, the more we compete for it.
2. The more competition there is, the more everyone's desire for it compounds – and it becomes more valuable.
3. The more valuable it is, the harder it is to get.
And then we begin the cycle again.
Clans of kids want the same toys, teens the same clothes, and adults the same credentials, books, and cars.
Our economic system rests on the shared desire for paper (or bits) exchangeable for desirable objects.
And the ability to instantly share memes and connect with increasingly niche in-groups fuels the rapid rise of social media and its impact on our communities.
("Mimetic desire" is a simple and profound idea articulated by René Girard in his fascinating book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.)
Positive mimetic connections pattern our identity by connecting with the shared desires of our in-group.
When we're among the faithful, our faith intensifies. When among the fashionable, we spend more time and money on clothes. When on Twitter, we follow someone who shares ideas with our in-group and has enough significant followers; someone like that must be worth following. *Click.*
Negative mimetic connections shape our identity in contrast with our out-group.
Individuals and groups that frame themselves as counter-cultural get defined by the culture they counter.
For example: as young children, most of us mimicked at least one of our parent's relational patterns: we got a kick out of wearing their clothes, doing the things they liked to do, and unquestioningly believing whatever they believed. But as we enter our teen years, our brain backflips and begins to form negative mimetic connections to the very same things. As teens, most of us wouldn't be caught dead dressing in the same clothing style as a mom or dad. And most of us reject at least a portion of their beliefs. As a result, much of teen culture is shaped indirectly by parent culture.
On Twitter, some people get fewer followers because no one else notable follows them or because the wrong people follow them.
Our mimetic connections may be strong, weak, life-giving, or life-sapping. But they shouldn't be ignored: they influence a large portion of what we love, hate, and act out at work, home, and all our relationships. Yet, it's easy to coast through life unaware that much of how we think and feel has little to do with us. We're less like masters of our fate, and more like marionettes moved by invisible mimetic strings.
Here are a few prompts that can help you identify your memetic connections:
- Positive mimetic: What ideas do you feel better sharing on social media because they might get affirmation from those you respect?
- Negative mimetic: What ideas or beliefs would you feel anxious tweeting or posting because it might upset the respect or affinity you have with your in-group?
- Positive mimetic: What clothes or accessories help you feel confident and attractive?
- Negative mimetic: What fashion styles would make you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable? Would you feel more self-conscious pulling out an iPhone or Android phone at a conference with people you respect?
- Positive mimetic: When was the last time you felt good about an accomplishment at work or school? If no one had said anything good about it, would you feel the same way?
- Positive mimetic: What social media post do feel best about? If no one had reacted to it, would you feel the same? If certain people hadn't liked it, would it make a difference?