Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cyber-Empathy (or Empathy armed with a keyboard)

I'm very intimidated by social media. Twitter, Reddit, Facebook are all varying degrees of confusing and overwhelming for me. Because of this I left them a while ago. It's a huge topic, and not the topic of this post, so more on that later. But I open with it because I recently did re-join twitter to follow people who write about the topics I'm interested in, and in a strange happenstance of interconnectedness, realclimate.com curator and climate scientist Gavin Schmidt re-tweeted this post by TED PR director Nadia Goodman. It's about comment moderation after the posting of a TED Talk by Monica Lewinsky.

This is absolutely not the kind of thing I would have found my way to on my own. However, I do love the content that comes out of TED, and Monica Lewinsky has such a magnitude of infamy that I checked it out. Lewinsky's talk and Goodman's resulting blog post are both fantastic, and you should watch and read them right away.

The reason I was even spurred to reference and write about these things are two quotes from the TED talk:


"The theory of minority influence...even in small numbers, when there's consistency over time, change can happen. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming up-standers...instead of bystander apathy"


This resonates with me because in a lot of my topics of interest (faith, public discourse, energy, environmental ethic), I see a large scale paradigm shift as necessary to move forward, or just a necessary result. I was struck by the idea that communication ethic, especially with the anonymity the internet can provide, needs a large scale paradigm shift. Crowdsourcing single voices can be part of that shift.


"We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let's acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention."


Not only do I love the language usage here, it resonated with me because I am often presented with the need to actively direct my thoughts and words about things into something productive and helpful. This blog is a part of that effort.


Cyber-bullying is not an issue I have ever once come into close contact with, not in my own life, nor anyone close to me. But the damaging effects of such interactions are being clearly researched and pretty well talked about these days. Here is an interesting write-up in Forbes of a recent study that interviewed children, and then re-interviewed them years later. (It's just after the infuriating "thought of the day"). I browsed the comments after reading as I often do, and I expected to find vitriol, I found none! The comments all related personal experience confirming that there are real, and negative effects of bullying. There was one interesting comment postulating that if your parents don't teach you to be tough (i.e. "weak") you'll become a liberal, and if they do, you'll become a conservative. You can't make this stuff up.

In any case...it's absolutely true that an undue balance of online communication is vicious, hateful and damaging. A big portion of that is just trolling! People don't even feel what they write, they just have to type and stir the pot. It helps nothing, it hurts many. A lot of this nastiness is in sensitive areas such as gender and sexual orientation. Anita Sarkeesian both does great writing on these issues, and has been the bitter recipient of them.

A small note about comment moderation. As I've navigated the waters of a highly polarized and ideological issue like climate change, I've found that strict comment policies and good moderation make all the difference in the world in a website or blog being helpful. When the shouting is subdued, what's left over is thoughtful commentary, regardless of agreement, that helps understand an issue. While this brings up interesting questions of censorship...I feel that the productivity of communication once trolling and sloganeering are eliminated is highly important. Probably more on that later.


If we are going to continue to grow as an interconnected, digital species (and we are), we have to learn to communicate with each other as human beings. We need to reinforce equality and the value of everyone's thoughts and experiences. Monica Lewinsky's TED talk shows clearly that we need to get over the childish obsession with others' misfortune that the internet allows us to revel in.


We need to speak up with intention.

And we need to be up-standers for what the right paradigm shifts are.

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