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Whether it's sharing cute photos of your pet on Instagram, posting birthday messages on Facebook, or starting your own video blog on YouTube, the Internet is constantly offering us more ways to connect.
However, all this interconnection doesn’t necessarily result in a better understanding between individuals. Relating to others with empathy—that is, putting oneself in the shoes of another person to understand and share their feelings—is often more difficult to do online than in real life.
Hidden behind a screen, web users are not accountable for their actions in the same way they would be in the real world. Depending on where we hang out online, the people we interact with can be disembodied or anonymous, and this can obstruct our ability to see things from their point of view.
As a quick look at the comments section of most any article on 4Chan.org will show, this anonymity has crowded the Internet with enough trolls to populate the underside of every bridge in Norway multiple times over—and has contributed to general online cruelty, bullying, and harassment.
A more empathic Web could help put an end to that. And research suggests that practicing empathy leads to happier relationships and more satisfying lives, so more empathy online can benefit our offline spaces too.
Luckily, there are many ways you can help build a more empathic Internet through your own interactions. Here are six ways to start.
1. Use live video and chat whenever you can.
Anonymity is one of the biggest obstacles to online empathy, says Roman Krznaric, a psychologist and author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. “Psychologists call [it] the ‘online disinhibition effect.’ Basically, if you’re anonymous and don’t have to see anyone face to face, the social barriers are gone and you can be incredibly rude to people.”
The disinhibition effect often appears in the comment sections of sites like YouTube and Reddit, places that are home to many exchanges between strangers.
“For users to form empathetic connections between each other, I think the more ‘real time’ the better,” says Jessi Baker, a user experience designer who specializes in technologies that encourage empathy and environmental sustainability in consumers. “Having live video and chat features enables genuine conversations where empathy can exist.”
Of course, not all live video and chat will lead to empathic interactions. (Chatroulette had mixed results and ran into trouble with X-rated exhibitionism.) But there are tons of ways Internet users can use live chat in a constructive way.
Catch up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years over Skype instead of sending a Facebook message. Participate in live chat events on Reddit and Twitter focused around a subject you’re passionate about. If you’re considering taking an online class, find one that that uses video. This helps foster a more personal bond between educators and students, and will probably be more engaging as well.
When done right, live chats remind us that the user on the other side of the screen is, in fact, a person too.
2. Use the web to branch out of your comfort zone.
To get a glimpse into the lives of others, consider checking out sites like Humans of New York. The blog features eye-catching photos of individuals paired with insightful quotes or snippets of dialogue. Websites like this enable users to see life from the perspective of strangers and offer a chance to reflect on shared experiences. You can follow Humans of New York on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.
It also helps to be more aware of the algorithms used by some of the world’s most popular sites. “If we want to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of connection, we have to take responsibility for shaping the tools we use to encounter the world,” writes Ethan Zuckerman in his book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.
Zuckerman discusses the dangers the algorithms used by corporate sites like Google, Amazon, and Netflix, which show users content based on what they’ve purchased or liked in the past. These types of filters make it increasingly difficult for Internet users to discover content outside their pre-existing networks.
Author and activist Eli Pariser calls it “the filter bubble.” While it’s nearly impossible to completely break out of it, Pariser has a great list of 10 best practices—most of them have to do with tweaking your settings on Facebook and Google—that can help.
Then there’s good old serendipity. Follow links from pages you trust, and then follow links you find there. It's a tried-and-true way to discover information and people outside your filter bubble.
3. Invest in content you enjoy.
Though the “like” button on Facebook often seems shallow, there are people out there working to give it more depth.
One way to do that is to get money involved. Flattr, for example, is an app that enables users to give financial support to the people who make the content they consume. Users select a monthly amount and upload it to their Flattr account. The app then divides that amount throughout the month, giving an equal share to all things you “like” or “favorite.”
“Flattr is a ‘Like’ with real value,” explains the program’s website. “It’s about being a part of the creation of great content.”
By involving money, Flattr allows users to be more conscious of their online actions and more appreciative of the humans who create their favorite content.
4. Document injustice and inform others about it.
If you come across some form of injustice, document and share it. Doing so lets you harness the power of the Internet—particularly social media—to raise awareness of social justice issues both globally and locally.
Online social networks used in this way helped spread powerful emotions during Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, Krznaric says. “Someone could take a photo of a young girl being killed by Iranian state security forces, and within hours hundreds of thousands of people around the world knew her name and were protesting in the streets.” This example shows how networks such as Twitter can generate waves of global empathy that might not exist without them.
Injustices can take place online too. If you witness cruelty in the online spaces where you spend time, screenshot it and send it to website hosts, school officials, or others able to restore justice.
5. Join the (book) club.
According to a recent study, people who read fiction tend to have a greater ability to empathize. This may have to do with readers’ skill at understanding characters’ thoughts and feelings. Whether it’s Twilight or Jane Eyre, works of fiction require this ability—granted, some more deeply than others
Thus, virtual book and film clubs can be a great way to engage with others and develop empathy together. To get started, pick a book or film and organize a time and place—be it a live chat or real-time message board—for members to meet and share their thoughts and feelings about the material.
Need some inspiration? Check out EmpathyLibrary.com. The website specializes in books and movies that bring you deep into another person’s point of view, and is full of top 10 lists and tips for putting a book club together. Anyone can access the site’s book and film recommendations, and if you become a member you can add recommendations of your own.
6. Practice self-compassion.
Web users have a tendency to portray their best selves online. We celebrate our new jobs, announce our engagements, and post various types of food porn. But if you want real empathy from your friends and followers, it helps to show more than just your happy moments.
We’ve seen this in action in the days since the suicide of Robin Williams. Many were surprised that one of the most successful and seemingly happy actors of our time suffered from depression. His death has prompted others to share their experiences with mental illness.
Take comedian Chris Gethard, who posted a blog entry “This Is The Face of My Mental Illness.” Under a picture he took of himself after a day spent “in bed, scared and crying,” he wrote: “Up until now, there is NO way I would let anyone see this face.” Gethard chose to share this photo of a challenging emotional moment so other people suffering from depression wouldn’t have to feel as alone in their sadness.
Sure, there’s beauty in your duckface selfies and vacation snapshots. But there’s also value in being open and honest with yourself, your friends, and your followers when challenging things come up in your life, and asking for empathy in times of need.
This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.