KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Technology

The Web as an Empathy Machine

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , April 21, 2014Leave a comment

tweet

On the internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog(e), so it follows that nobody knows if you’re a middle-class white dude, either.

Around the end of March, women of colour began swapping Twitter avatars with willing white men (and women) for a week as part of #RaceSwapExp, and the results were upsettingly predictable. Mikki Kendall, the woman of colour who started the experiment, tweeted after only a couple of days that ‘not having my face in my avi = way less trolling’. A Caucasian male participant, meanwhile, noted that, after swapping his display picture to a photograph of a black woman, he began receiving so many hateful replies to his tweets that he had to begin blocking dozens of racially-abusive Twitter users a day.

Ad hoc Twitter projects like #RaceSwapExp neatly draw together all that is terrific and all that is terrible about the web as a system. Depending on how it is used, the web can either allow us to retreat into callousness, cliques, and fixed ways of thinking (see: every Twitter user who abused another they assumed was a woman of colour), or it can function as the world’s most sophisticated and effective empathy machine (see: everyone who actively participated in the race swap experiment).

Using the web as an empathy machine in 2014 requires working against the grain and hacking together solutions to expand our spheres of influence. While Twitter and Tumblr do allow for identity play, for example, it’s also true that they tend to encourage users to fall, as quickly as possible, into close-knit circles in which the same content and opinions repeat. It’s easier to use Twitter as a tool to confirm your existing biases than to subvert them, and #RaceSwapExp is noteworthy right now largely because it is the exception that proves that rule: most of us, after neatly curating our personalised online environment, do not move far beyond our existing bookmarks and followers.

Facebook is even more rigid, firmly locking down a user’s identity from the outset and selectively pushing content through that further narrows a user’s worldview. It is entirely possible to fall into a social media bubble in which a liberal can pretend conservatives don’t exist, or in which adherents to any ‘-ism’ can block out those with opposing belief systems.

Using the web as an empathy machine means subverting those systems that attempt to define us and limit the content we see. It means confronting unpleasant opinions and attempting to at least attempt to understand how anybody could hold views we don’t agree with.

How exactly might we do this? Recently, in a bid to repurpose Twitter as a tool for increasing empathy, I’ve begun using lists to experience Twitter from the perspectives of imagined users with different life experiences. Three days of the week, I exclusively read tweets from Twitter users that share broad perspectives and experiences I’m not particularly familiar with, and some of which I’m certainly not sympathetic toward (currently: feminists of colour, conservatives, and misogynists – in terms of the latter, I certainly don’t want to end up sharing the sentiments of bigots, but I do want to see if there’s a way to relate to them as real people, as opposed to flattened caricatures).

There are other examples. As I write this, Freeplay director Harry Lee has relinquished control of his Twitter account to his followers – what better way, after all, to increase empathy (or, at least, decrease ego) than to lend others your online identity wholesale and let them ‘build in’ their own thoughts and experiences? In a similar vein, Roundteam provides a tool to share a Twitter account across multiple users: what if you decided to find somebody whose views were diametrically opposed to your own and work with them to construct a Twitter persona in which you could create a single self out of two apparently disparate halves?

We can move beyond Twitter, of course, but we don’t need to. If Twitter provides us with a tool to construct and cement our notions of selfhood, and reconfirm our existing biases, it holds that it must also be possible to use Twitter as a tool for radical empathy. On Twitter, it follows that if nobody knows if you’re a dog, nobody knows if you’re an environmentalist or a yuppie, a meat-eater or a vegan, an addict or a health nut, a slacker or a corporate drone. So why not be everything, at least for a little while?

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a web designer and writer, co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely, and co-director of the Digital Writers’ Festival.

ACO logo




Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

1560682_10153899026420591_499501666_n

Eli Glasman

Just a number: The literary world’s obsession with age

I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out. Read more »

winterson

Carody Culver

Jeanette Winterson’s sacred and secular space

It seems that people either love her or hate Jeanette Winterson, and sometimes that has less to do with her writing and more to do with the occasional controversies she’s regularly sparked since 1985. Read more »

Untitled

Veronica Sullivan

Adventures in reality with Oliver Mol

One of Mol’s recent pieces contains the line: ‘I want to put my bare ass on the cover of my book because not only will it make good promo but it speaks honestly about who I am.’ Read more »

The Tunnel TV review

Julia Tulloh

The Tunnel vs The Bridge: The ethics of TV remakes

A body is found in the Eurotunnel, neatly laid across the border between France and England. When police attempt to move the body, it splits in two with the top half in France and lower half in England. Read more »

1398878478_lea-michele-brunette-ambition-zoom

Julia Tulloh

How to be beautiful, according to Lea Michele

Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition, is what you might expect from a fairly young television and musical theatre star. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Julia Tulloh

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

lead_large

Rochelle Siemienowicz

On Boyhood, parenting and the passing of time

Since its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, film critics have been falling over themselves to lavish love upon Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Read more »

wetlands_poster

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Lucky Dip Diving: an approach to film festivals

I wanted to let go of the grasping desire to watch everything and be part of every conversation. But with the Melbourne International Film Festival in full swing, anxieties arise again. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

owl1

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Speaking with pixels

On the Facebook Newsfeed, it’s now possible to click a tiny smiley face inside almost any textbox to bring up a series of thumbnail images: an alligator bawling into a tissue, say, or a whistling fox dropping a turd, or a green owl vomiting rainbows. Read more »

hbo-silicon-valley

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Silicon Valley will eat itself

At a certain point in the lifespan of any subculture, fiction and reality start to blur. Members of the subculture begin to model their character and appearance on the idealised representations of themselves they read about or see on screen. Read more »

inbox

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Death to the Inbox

The primary source of our ‘email problem’ seems to lie in our belief that email is a vastly richer and more capable medium than it is. Read more »

Untitled

Danielle Binks

How to buy books for young adults

‘Excuse me, where are the boys’ books? I’m looking to buy for a 16-year-old.’ When I overheard this question while browsing in a bookshop recently, I felt insta-rage. Read more »

detail

Danielle Binks

Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

The testosterone-fuelled BIFF! BANG! KAPOW! of classic comics can seem uninviting, filled with spandex-clad men and swooning damsels who hold limited appeal outside the stereotypical 18-35 year-old male demographic. But things are changing in the world of comics. Read more »

9780143305323

Danielle Binks

Australia Needs Diverse Books

The ‘We Need Diverse Books’ team is made up of authors, editors and publishers from North America, but the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and campaign has reverberated in youth literature communities worldwide. Read more »

Jabberwocky1

Chad Parkhill

The carnival is over

Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. Read more »

Robin Thicke

Chad Parkhill

Why has Robin Thicke’s Paula flopped?

What, exactly, has caused Paula to sell so poorly that it has already positioned itself as this year’s most memorable flop? Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

2014-07-03-theleftovers

Stephanie Van Schilt

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. It’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing enough to stick with for the long haul. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »