Friday, January 11, 2013

Empathy Online

I find it very, very difficult to be a good, loving and open listener in an online forum. In person I can smile, I can focus on the person's eyes, I can truly encourage happy and open thoughts when interacting with them.

I find it much, much harder to be a good listener in a text-only format, such as facebook, twitter, linkedin or even just regular e-mail. The words are there, but what's missing (for me) is the context of the words. I can't see their expression, I can't tell if they were tired, or happy, or lonely when they made their comment. It's stripped of all the interpersonal detail that I get very quickly out of seeing someone's face.

I have myself posted material to social media that was misunderstood by being taken out of context, and as a result, caused family and friends to be hurt. I think it's just too easy to be misunderstood online.


I recently posted a link to this article on our facebook page about how fifth-grade students can be taught to empathize with people from history and the choices they have made. This seems very similar to me to empathizing online - a history book is mostly text, with a few photos. The article states that there are four things we need to build up this historical-type empathy:

1. “the introduction of an historical event necessitating the analysis of human action"
2. "the understanding of historical context and chronology"
3. "the analysis of a variety of historical evidence and interpretations", and 
4. "the construction of a narrative framework through which historical conclusions are reached” 

Item 1 (the event) and item 2 (overall context) I can see pretty quickly in most situations with friends or family online, especially if I know the person and/or they live in the same area of the world. My challenge to putting myself in someone else's shoes is to try to come up with a variety of different reasons why they do the things they do (item 3), and to construct their narrative framework (item 4).

Here's a lighthearted example to close with; here's a tweet by @libazann: Accidentally turned on the Con-Air instead of the aircon. Now John Malkovich is trying to kill me & Nic Cage is trying to give me a bunny.

I don't know this person. My first thought is to laugh, because I know the movie she's talking about and I like it. However, perhaps she's sad, and is unhappy that she turned on this movie. Maybe she doesn't like it or is known among her friends as the one who makes fun of John Malkovich and Nicholas Cage. If by 'aircon' she means 'air conditoner', well, now I'm hoping she's not sweltering in a hot apartment somewhere while the dust storm in Australia zooms on by.

Everyone deserves to be listened to. Do you have an experience of being misunderstood in an online context?


Wire said...

I am offended and angered by this post! There is no chance I am misreading your tone and intent. I am certain you are evil and rude!

Just kidding of course. :P

But yeah, having helped moderate an online forum for a while I've seen my fair share of empathy failures online. I had a guideline I think worked well:

"When reading other's posts, try to interpret any ambiguities in the best way possible.

"When writing your own post, assume any ambiguities will be interpreted in the worst way possible."

M said...

I read your blog about on line communication and agree wholeheartedly. I read a comment by someone and disagreed with it and wrote a mild response. Someone else thought I was writing about them and sent me a nasty reply and a nastier e-mail.Many times I have read something and can't tell if the writer is serous or being sarcastic. All the gadgets are wonderful for providing information, allowing sharing of photos of family and friends etc. However I think using facebook, email, texts, tweets have hurt us by cutting down both on in person contact or even voice on a phone.