By this point in time, many of us, or at least some of us are aware that there Internet can be a barrier for empathy, for human connection. Whether it’s Facebook acting as a placeholder for an in person social life, or the relentless trolling and cyber bullying on the Internet, the technology disconnect is visible to almost anyone who uses a mobile device at some point. To whatever degree this is true, it’s a topic on people’s minds.
Sure, cities and modern living haven’t helped empathy. And there have always been those who take advantage of community. But where cities increase anonymity, decrease responsibility, remove a layer of potential understanding, the Web can do so even more.
Equally some people might argue that the Net is lowering boundaries, connecting the world, and in some ways this is true, the Internet more than anything has made us a global community. The same anonymity that extends to lack of empathy and sometimes anti-social behaviour also expands free speech and gives voice to those who need it. Anonymity has both positive and negative effects, and the social situation itself may help determine which is favoured.
And just as concerning, social science has established that empathy is a learned skill. So it might be possible that decreased exposure to empathy, might increasingly lower empathy. That is to say, it’s a problem that may well feed into itself.
I am a big fan of the idea that technology should enhance life, and pair with human nature, rather than technology determining human nature. And I think that can be true, like any tool, what determines its outcomes is how we choose to use it. So what can be done to increase the human connection of the way we use the Internet?
The most obvious solution is to go with mediums where anonymity is removed, and where cues like facial expression, tone, body posture are present. It’s a lot easier to empathize with a person you can see or hear, than text on a page. Psychologists call that the online dishibition effect. So where ever possible, utilize live video chat, and live audio chat, or at least video and audio. Audio tone also seems to be a primary clue in detecting falsehoods, so if you can hear someone, you are more like to know if they are lying.
Moderation might be controversial, but as theory suggests that context determines the positive or negative bias of anonymity, creating cultures online that do not tolerate abuse is a way to maximize the positive, minimize the negative. It may also help foster stronger empathy in future generations – used right. Of course where the line is crossed, is where it removes the positive aspects of anonymity, freedom of expression and open sharing. So it can be a fine line.
Reach across the world
As discussed earlier, the Internet is also making us a global society. If you embrace this, and read about, or view people who have different lives, different experiences, you can use the internet to increase your empathy for others. Try following a YouTube channel, or a blog of somebody whose culture, or lifestyle, or life experience is well outside of what you are familiar with.
Like anything human, the Internet is fuelled by culture. There are cultures of abuse, trolling, bullying, and social inappropriateness. Simply saying something, reporting it, documenting it, or doing something, anything about, brings back the human element, the social element. Don’t tolerate it!
Fight the superficiality
Social networking, for an example, can emphasize the superficial. As Portlandia put so well, people crop out the sadness. They create an image of themselves, a veneer. And in such an environment it can be easy to judge others and yourself. To be fooled by the illusion. People who are critical, are frequently critical of themselves. Be compassionate towards yourself. Realize that social media is an illusion, that it is sculpted, much like Hollywood, what you see is not reality. Everyone has flaws, everyone gets sad. Even that supposedly light hearted troll, is hiding his vulnerability. So be easy on yourself!
Get out there
Last but not least, the Web should not substitute for a social life. It’s not a shadow on meeting people in real life, creating real bonds, and connecting to real community. At its peak, instead, it enhances that community rather than replaces it. Turn off your Facebook notifications, and catch up with some family and friends!
The Internet has far too much potential for good, for us to reject it based on its issues. But we should perhaps also be aware of its issues, and then maybe we can create an Internet that is more of a global community, where the ideals of those who describe it as such, are fully realized.