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2014 columns, Technology

The Web as an Empathy Machine

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

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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.

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