How can we learn from the actions of others?

Here’s what I love about social media: its ability to connect people with others.

On the surface it seems so simple, but the power of those connections is anything but. I’m very particular about my language so I want to clarify: I don’t believe in the power of social media; that doesn’t exist. Social media is a tool. I believe in the power of people who use social media to perform meaningful actions – to spread the seeds of a new idea, to publicize little known facts, to share photos across the globe, or to simply connect with other people. These series of small, meaningful actions are the source of power that people often mistakenly attribute to social media.

When a hashtag, photo, or headline goes viral, it’s people who make that happen, not the platform. For example, recent popular hashtags on Twitter (#blacklivesmatter, #ICantBreathe, #alivewhileblack) have garnered attention because every person who tweeted using those tags made a decision to voice their support of these messages. This could have been because the hashtag resonated with their personal experiences, or because they saw others using the hashtag and wanted to show their support, or because they saw the hashtag as an opportunity to be a part of a larger growing movement.

Whatever the reason, each individual’s choice to write a post, or share a hashtag, is crucial to the larger collective. These expressions of 140 characters or less performed millions of times over produce a unified demand for national attention. I was reflecting on those hashtags last Friday morning when I sat down in front of my computer to put my thoughts in writing. About two hours and a flood of tears later I had a 1500-plus-word blog post. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

In my research, I’m constantly grappling with how we teach and learn from each other in unstructured ways (mostly with the help of new media), and how those teaching/learning moments empower us to try new things. I use social cognitive theory (SCT) as a framework, which holds that our behaviors are influenced by a number of psychosocial factors including what happens when we see other people perform the behavior, what we expect to happen if we perform a behavior, and whether or not we believe we have what it takes to perform the behavior. The deeper I get into my research, which currently focuses on health and well-being, I become more aware of how much we take away from our online interactions. We witness people experience life from behind our screens, and we learn from their experiences and go about planning and shaping our own.

Last Friday, I was empowered to share my personal perspective after clicking on hashtags and reading a series of amazing pieces like Eve Dunbar’s moving account of her experiences as Associate Dean of Faculty at her institution. Below my piece on Chronicle Vitae, I’ve already received a comment stating the obvious: How will this affect her ability to land a tenure-track position, especially in the face of academics who don’t like being confronted with these issues? To which my response is, simply, ‘good question.’ However, I believe I’m less concerned with the answer to that question as I am with the questions that drove me to begin writing: How can I impact the lives of others who have similar experiences? How can I empower those who feel powerless? How can I model those actions that have left me feeling hopeful in what could be described as a hopeless time? How can I make these reflections meaningful and accessible? These questions are very similar to the questions that drive my research and, thus, my search for a tenure-track position that will allow me to continue this line of work. I believe my future employer will understand that. If not, I know a ton of other people who will.


One thought on “How can we learn from the actions of others?

  1. Pingback: Inspiration or Permission? | The Black Girl Movement

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