Finding Community, Empathy Online In An Era Of Rage

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Technology and the web can be used to foster empathy, community, understanding and even spirituality. (Jenny Kane/AP)
Technology and the web can be used to foster empathy, community, understanding and even spirituality. (Jenny Kane/AP)

The online world can be isolating — and it can even contribute to rage, depression and extremism.

But technology and the web can also be used to foster community, understanding and even spirituality. Professor Jamil Zaki says that while popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter are programmed to amplify people’s weaknesses like vanity and fear, there are places online designed to encourage connection and empathy.

Zaki authored a book on the subject, "The War For Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World," and teaches an undergraduate class titled "Becoming Kinder." His article "The Technology of Kindness" appeared in Scientific American.

“Technology platforms don't sort of help their shareholders by making users feel happy or socially connected,” he says, “but by keeping them online.”

Online giants favor what former Google ethicist Tristan Harris calls “extractive” technology, which takes advantage of people’s vulnerabilities.

But Zaki’s article discusses a more empathetic alternative — what the Center for Humane Technology calls “regenerative” technology that highlights healthy interactions over outrage or fear.

“I guess the message of regenerative technology is that there are tons of people, millions of people who, if they could, would want to interact in a more productive and kind way online,” he says. “The question is, how do we create those opportunities for them and make sure that they're available to everybody?”

Interview Highlights

On how platforms like Facebook and Twitter amplify negative content like conspiracy theories and bigotry

“I think if you rewind to 10 years ago and look at an old issue of Wired, people were breathless thinking about the wonderful global community that we'd be able to have through the internet. And I think that that potential remains. But I don't think it's been fulfilled. … And so those platforms have been built, therefore, to play to whatever will keep us online, which is often our weaknesses like vanity and fear rather than our strengths.”

On what former Google ethicist Tristan Harris calls extractive technology

“For instance, if people are scared of folks who are different from them, [it’s] a barrier to kindness and understanding. Well, then, as you said, YouTube's algorithm may take someone who's looked at one video that has a political leaning, and then the suggestion might be the next most extreme version of that view, and then the next most extreme all the way until this person is totally terrified of people who are different from themselves. In essence, we're being sort of pumped up to feel separate from others who are different from us and to express animosity, even hatred towards them.”

On the Center for Humane Technology’s aim of creating regenerative experiences

“I think fear and hatred and vanity are all really powerful psychological forces. But to the point of your series, so are connection and community and empathy. Then so, a question then becomes how do we design technologies, online platforms especially that help us express that deep sort of affinity with others that resides inside us? So Juliana Schroeder at [University of California,] Berkeley has found that when people read somebody’s opinion as opposed to hearing them in their own voice talk about that opinion, they're less likely to see that person as fully human. So we're missing out on some of the cues that allow us to recognize our common humanity with others."

On the website Change of View, where users share long opinion posts

“On Change of View, people post about things that are controversial, even troubling. But the incentive structure is different from that of Twitter. So on a Change of View, you have to kind of post a long opinion and you have to be open to having your view changed, hence the title of the site. And when other people respond, they also have to engage thoughtfully and open-mindedly. And whereas on Twitter, for instance, you might receive a retweet for insulting somebody personally, on Change of View, other people can reward you with what are called deltas. This is the recognition from a reader that, 'Hey, you know what you said actually made me see things differently.' So in other words, you're rewarding people not for inflammatory posts, you're rewarding them for being thoughtful and for really engaging with each other.”

On whether websites like Change of View deal with trolls

“Change of View is a moderated site. I think that part of it comes down to what type of regulation do we want to have on online communities? I think that's part of the issue here is sort of how do we keep these communities sort of true to their ideals?”

On the website Rare Connect, a platform for people with rare illnesses

“Rare illnesses are a paradox, right? They affect less than 1 in 1,000 people. But there are so many of them, like hundreds of them, that basically more than one in 10 people has an illness where they probably have never met another person who has it in real life. So that can be really isolating, stigmatizing. But online communities, including lots of Facebook groups within larger sites like Rare Connect, offer these individuals a chance to find often for the first time a community of people who understand and share their experiences.”

On apps like KoKo and Seven Cups, where people can give and ask for emotional support

“I certainly don't want to suggest that going to an online message board could be a replacement for professional help, especially if people are really in crisis. But, you know, a lot of us are dealing with just sort of mundane stress, anxiety, and we just want to talk to somebody. And we think of the anonymity of life online as a barrier to social connection. But on some of these sites, it can actually facilitate it. I might be able to open up about something that's facing me more easily to a stranger than I would even to people who I do know. And on these sites like Seven Cups, there's just this huge community of people waiting to empathetically listen and respond. And it can be hugely affirming for both parties.

“Bruce Doré and his colleagues studied KoKo. And they've basically looked at users who were either going on KoKo to ask for help or going on KoKo and sort of providing support to others. Believe it or not, the ones who had the sort of most positive outcome were not those who were receiving help, but the ones who were giving help to others. Oftentimes we think of kindness to others as something that sort of will, I don't know, deplete us. But instead, it turns out being kind to others helps us as well.”

On what consumers can do to put pressure on Google and Facebook

“Tristan Harris and others are trying to work in part with these platforms. I think a lot of people at Facebook and Twitter are sort of now thinking a lot more intentionally about what their platforms have done. And maybe if they can have a more positive impact as users, what can we do? We can vote with our feet or vote with our clicks, as it were, and try to spend time online in places that make us feel connected. That begins with what I call an internal audit. When I'm online, at least. And trust me, Robin, I also feel hopeless often when I'm on Twitter especially. But I try to ask myself, is this the experience that I'm looking for? Instead of tweeting in anger, can I support somebody? Can I message a friend on Facebook who I haven’t talked to in years or find somebody who is expressing struggle and let them know that I see them? If we all make choices like that, well, that's different than sort of regulation and putting platforms feet to the fire, but at least we can start a movement from the ground up.”

Websites Mentioned In The Segment:

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on January 16, 2020.

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