Your “default mode network” needs exercise. I wrote about this in a previous post. In short, the DMN is the area of the brain that thinks about the self, friends and others in our lives. Whenever we’re not engaged in task-oriented thoughts, our downtime is used to reflect on ourselves and others. Developing this “muscle” helps us:
- and understand complex social cues that guide us through in-person social situations
That’s the basic, short list. You may recall how professional rock/paper/scissors champions employ their default mode network to best their opponents (at success rates much higher than the 50% you’d think would be common).
This got me thinking about technology and how the beautiful, evolving human brains we carry around adapt to change despite the limitations our digital worlds impose on us.
And where did that little thinking exercise lead me? To Fortnite, of course!
If you observe yourself or your young ones playing a game of Fortnite, you’ll notice the dancing. It’s one of the more amusing side-shows that happens at the beginning of the game before the drop and within the game itself at moments of comic relief. The moves are pretty cool, and it’s got a fun element of giddiness between all the shooting. It’s quite expressive.
It’s even more amusing if you think about the game-playing demographic. These are typically young boys playing Fortnite – kids of junior high and high school age that might otherwise be embarrassed to dance in public or at least be seen “flossing” in front of their parents.
These are the kinds of dorks showcased in John Hughes’ 16 Candles. In public, they’d cringe at the thought of dancing, and in darkened gymnasiums they’d prefer to line up on the opposite side of the basketball court from the girls. We’ve all been there. We struggled with the impulse to ask girls we knew quite well onto the dance floor.
Why would this dancing be so compelling within a video game?
Here’s my armchair psychology take. The lack of social cues in the digital world encourages the players to express themselves. They’re safe within the game with their friends, and the digital “skins” and pixels of the game itself allow them a certain freedom from IRL embarrassment. To dance as a cartoon with an M-16 carries much less risk than actual moves on the gym stage.
Interestingly, dancing in Fortnite doesn’t get you any points, kills or strategic advantage. As with the skins, the payoffs are related to image and personality as opposed to the scoreboard. You’re able to express who you are – a function of the default mode network – and communicate tribal gestures to the crowd.
This is an amplification or an interpretation of gesture behavior (dancing) that’s communicating bravado, victory, humor, sarcasm, teasing, bullying and the like.
It’s a proxy for behaviors of previous generations that had no digital world within which to express. They expressed in person. Kids these days still need and want that. They mimic it in the digital world.
The Fortnite gesticulations range from the mundane to the meta-memetic. They’re performing subtle interactions that may even be banned on actual school campuses (remember the dabbing mobs that would crop up and get banned?).
Thumbs up, “like” and emoji expression
Kids just want to dance! Yet, the digital world has reduced their social cues to emojis and thumbs up/thumbs down interactions that offer no clues that tantalize the default mode network. In a no bullying, no gloating, no football-spiking, trophy-for-everyone world, the dancing expression needs to bubble up. We’ve been shamed into impossible boxes of political correctness and puritanism.
Aside: It’s also fascinating that the mostly boys Fortnite world features female skins, so dancing boy-girl is possible in terms of look and feel. It’s like merchant marines on a clipper, dressing in drag for parties.
TikTok is yet another platform that offers the same expression. (Aside: the name itself, can be considered Tic Talk, a way to express the tics of expression with video communication.)
Again, it’s the default mode network – desperately trying to come out of its shell and play.
According to my daughter, the most common TikTok videos use humor. One she described acted out a “Honey how was your day” scenario. “My day was horrible. Teachers were yelling. Students yelling. I just want to sit in a corner and eat my goldfish.” The macabre twist? The kid is in the corner eating an actual goldfish. Devouring a pet. Ick!
TikTok features lip-sync videos where kids sing along to their favorite pop songs. The best ones, says my daughter, act out moves as well. There are a lot of dances in the videos. They play out the social cues in their own way. The song is the common ground where the child layers on their own interpretation.
Ironically, one of the popular ones is a Japanese song called “Hiding in your WIFI.” There are lots of videos that riff from the Ariana Grande song “I want, I got it.” They cut in things they desire, with things they receive. A water bottle want becomes a milkshake reception and so forth.
My daughter says the best ones don’t try to nail the clip and look like the artist. They include some humor, creative takes, and encouragement: “You inspire me” is a common refrain. That’s the kind of communication that dazzles the DMN.
People also create drawings and slow-motion video clips on TikTok. Some of the more popular ones feature slo-mo video of flowers, chalk on pavement, cute sayings and jumping, twisting bodies. These are set to pop songs.
The unexpressed yearns to release
In both Fortnite and TikTok, it’s clear kids are developing DMN skills despite the digital shackles placed upon them. They find ways around the likes and thumbs up signs we’ve embraced on Facebook and Instagram. They’re going beyond the “dumbing down” of social interactions and doing what they’re built to do: communicate subtlety, negotiate complex back-and-forth narratives, and inspire each other.
This is the paradox. The human animal gravitates to what it’s designed to do naturally. No amount of digital speed bumps can hinder their development. Consider this encouraging. The kids are finding ways around the stupid advertising plays of Zuckerberg, Bezos and Sundar Pichai (Google).
They’re growing into fully-formed adults despite the systems that are set up to exploit them. Of course, we’d like them to get out into the analog world and test their skills in person. The social media world is, however, not as dark as we’d make it out to be. There is art, humor and complex interaction in play. Let them dance!