Empathy in the age of ‘Like’

heart net“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we’re gonna live on the internet!”- Sean Parker, The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)

It is pretty inarguable that the act of sociality now exists on the web as much as it does in life, but the internet is no longer the realm of the social alone. Business, politics, finance; most of what we do now has at least some basis in the ethereal web. In essence all this can be summarised by saying that there has been a considerable technological innovation in the ways that people communicate.

 This becomes interesting when you also consider the commonly held belief that the early development of communication played an incredibly important role in human evolution. By introducing empathetic interactions, the progression of vast civilisations was made possible – and through people understanding each others’ needs and appreciating the value of exchange, the human race created the ethos behind of a mutually beneficial society. It seems, thus, a logical argument to propose that as methods and levels of communication have advanced, so has the facility for empathy.

The web is just the latest in a long line of advancements in telecommunication, but it’s also the most impactful one in history (by far). The crux of it is that communicating with people has never been easier. There are roughly 2.8 billion people with access to the internet which means that hypothetically more than a third of the world’s population can connect to each other. And the most noteworthy yield of this phenomenon is an insight into the lives of people, that was previously not available.

Social networking, blogging, and video sharing sites do exactly this: they give regular people a channel for mass communication. The role of YouTube during the Arab Spring is just one specific example – throughout this period, the rest of the world was provided with access to videos captured and shared by the very people involved. Of course we’ve always had news from abroad, but thanks to the internet we now get first-hand accounts of what’s happening. There is now an alternative to the abstraction of a news story – that is: direct and personal communication, which inevitably leads to a general ever-deepening capacity for empathic affinity.

If you look beyond all the trolls and spambots one can see that there is increasingly more and more web content that’s genuinely improving the empathic nature of a large portion of the population.

From blogging to smart social networks to civic action spaces, the internet is increasingly becoming a hub of understanding and of community. An obvious result of people understanding and responding to this is the successful establishing of crowd-funding: hundreds of thousands of people financially supporting each other’s projects, out of compassion or a shared vision of innovation. Never before has it been possible to reach out to so many people so easily, and never before have so many reached back.

Two decades after its introduction, the web appears to be slowly moving toward its potential: as a device that breaks down the barriers of geography and culture to allow a global community to thrive. Of course, the tools and spaces for online collaboration are in need of some innovation. But, armed with this newfound benevolence and the technological breakthroughs that will develop over the next decade, who knows what could be achieved in the future?

Empathy in the age of ‘Like’