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FIRST-PERSON: The evaporation of empathy

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A major consequence of the fact that the majority of us live on the internet is ever-increasing polarization. All kinds of ingredients have melded together to create the white-hot polarization so many of us feel, and one of the most prominent of those ingredients is the evaporation of empathy. But why has empathy evaporated? Like with polarization, there are likely a handful of contributing factors, but perhaps the most prominent of those is our unending thirst for personalization.

All About You

Virtually every major part of the internet wants to customize your experience to be most suitable for you. Part of the reason websites want to personalize your experience is so they can better understand you and more effectively target ads to you – the more you tailor your feeds, the more information you pass to the companies curating your feeds.

The other reason websites want to personalize your experience is because the more personally tailored your experience feels, the more likely you are to return to that website. The way this plays out in the more social corners of the internet is most commonly seen in algorithms delivering content with which you agree. The obvious problem with this is that such feedback loops or “filter bubbles” of content that reinforce what we believe about everything can lead us to believe no other views exist. That’s not good. But it should be noted that there is some debate about whether or not filter bubbles on social media are a primary driver of polarization.

Whether or not filter bubbles are a primary driver of polarization is itself polarizing – the irony. Regardless of what you believe about that phenomenon, the hyper-personalization of our internet experiences hinders our ability to see why other people believe what they believe. On the face of it, filter bubbles and hyper-personalization seem problematic because they may entrench us in our own beliefs. But beyond that, the broader problem is that it is impossible to know what the world looks like for someone who disagrees with us.

You can’t see what others see

Jaron Lanier explains this well in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Polarization and filter bubbles have existed longer than the internet. Cable news encourages such filter bubbles. But at least with cable news, you can flip over to a cable news channel that pushes an ideology in opposition to yours to see what those people are hearing. On social media, you cannot do this. If you are a hardcore Conservative, and your Facebook feed is full of hardcore Conservative articles and opinions, you can’t flip over to “hardcore Liberal” Facebook to see what they’re saying.

Lanier writes at the end of chapter six of his book:

The degree of difference between what is shown to someone else and what I can guess is being shown is itself unknowable. The opacity of our times is even worse than it might be because of the degree of opacity is itself opaque. I remember when the internet was supposed to bring about a transparent society. The reverse has happened.

If you often feel like you are living in a different world than the people with whom you disagree, it’s because YOU ARE.

Living in our own little ideological worlds is not a new problem, but it is amplified by social media because we have no simple opportunity to peek into the little worlds of people who hold opposing views. This hinders empathy and it cripples civil conversation, which naturally leads us to be entrenched and polarized.

Because we live in our own little ideological worlds crafted by one-sided social media feeds, we lose a solid grip on the truth. The line between “what is true” and “what I want to be true” gets blurry. This leads to gullibility, whose consequences have never been seen or felt quite as much as they have been the last few years.

A call to intentional empathy

It ought to be clear that if we are going to have empathy for other people we are going to have to be intentional about it. We live in a cultural and social ecosystem governed by a method of communication that severely hinders our ability to understand and care about the circumstances and beliefs of others.

This requires us to be active in our empathy, not passive. Assume the best of others, not the worst. Understand that others whose views may seem outlandish to you likely believe your views also seem outlandish. Give grace. Be kind.


Chris Martin is a content marketing editor at Moody Publishers and author of the Terms of Service Newsletter.

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  • Chris Martin