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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/9/14

6 Ways to Bring More Empathy to the Internet

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Yes Magazine
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Reprinted from www.yesmagazine.org

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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.

All this interconnection doesn't necessarily result in a better understanding between individuals.

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.

As mentioned above, 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."

Participate in live chat events focused around a subject or event you're passionate about.

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.

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