Mark Zuckerberg has just announced Facebook’s latest innovation: the introduction of an “empathy” button as an alternative to the thumbs-up “Like” icon that accompanies every post. The plan, he says, is to create “a quick way to emote” so people can register their response to anything from personal tragedies such as a death in the family to political tragedies such as the refugee crisis.
If Zuckerberg thinks this is going to create a global upsurge of empathy, he’s mistaken. Clicking a button as an act of empathy represents the worst kind of digital slacktivism. It substitutes genuine action in the real world for a momentary online act that might salve the conscience but does little else.
Empathy must matter if it’s got Facebook’s attention. But what is it? As psychologists will tell you, it’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, understand their feelings and perspectives, and – crucially – to use that understanding to guide our actions. Of course we should respond to a friend whose mother has just died or who has lost their job, but the best way to do it isn’t to click a button: it’s to pick up the phone and give them a call, or at the very least to write them a meaningful message. The danger is that an “emote” function will erode our efforts to genuinely communicate with others, leaving us both emotionally inarticulate and illiterate.
As for posts on political topics, we’re not going to solve the refugee crisis or tackle climate change by clicking the empathy button as we scroll down our wall during lunch break. Zuckerberg is right to realise that we need to find a way to respond to such issues, but the real point of empathy is to convert our emotional reaction into a meaningful act of social change, be it joining a march or volunteering our time for a cause we believe in. The UK is now opening its doors to Syrian refugees because thousands took to the streets in their name, not because we “liked” Facebook posts about their plight.
It’s true that Facebook, Twitter and other social networking apps have a place in political mobilisation. During the Occupy Movement and the Arab spring, they helped notify people of police brutality or that a protest was about to take place, which inspired them to step away from their screens and on to the streets of Madrid or Cairo.
But despite high hopes – including Zuckerberg’s – the potential of digital technology to create a wave of empathic action hasn’t borne fruit. There’s evidence that the more Facebook interactions people have, the more narcissistic they’re likely to be, while we’re all familiar with the trolling and digital harassment that stems from online anonymity, or what psychologists call the “online disinhibition effect”. It’s relatively easy to be abusive to someone if you’re not looking them in the eye.
Rather than clicking empathy icons, we need to find more innovative ways of creating online empathic engagement that has a greater chance of shifting the contours of the social and political landscape. A few years ago an organisation in Israel and Palestine called the Parents’ Circle set up the Hello Peace telephone line: any Israeli could call a freephone number and was put through to a Palestinian stranger to talk about anything they wished for up to half an hour. Palestinians could similarly call Israelis. In its first five years of operation more than one million calls were made.
Just imagine if we used Skype or other simple digital technologies to do something similar today, like getting wealthy bankers to speak with people lining up at food banks, or creating conversations between climate-change sceptics and climate-change activists.
That’s how to use technology to create grassroots empathy. It’s the opposite of Zuckerberg’s desire to turn empathy into a one-click solution.
Ultimately, we need to promote experiential empathy that really enables people to step into the shoes of others whose lives are unknown or remote from their own, rather than opting for the convenience of quick-fix digital substitutes. What might it be like to be a migrant in the “jungle” in Calais, or to have lost your job in your 50s and be struggling to make ends meet? That’s what we really need to know. But it won’t be an empathy button that will help us find out. – By Roman Krznaric
Roman Krznaric is author of the international bestseller Empathy and founder of the Empathy Museum. Its launch exhibit, A Mile in My Shoes – where you can literally walk in the shoes of a stranger and hear their personal story – is open in London until September 27 as part of the Totally Thames festival.
Image – AFP