How cultural innovators are driving empathy online

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The perception that reasoned dialogue dies online is fed by a number of different yet interconnected issues. Firstly, the interactions people see in their social media networks tend to skew towards outrage rather than empathy. And the ‘filter bubble’ compounds this: people follow and seek out those who validate and corroborate their perspective. 

The social media giants are well aware of these challenges and are acting on them. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has made “the health of the conversation” online a priority, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced a renewed emphasis on tackling hate speech at 2019’s F8 summit. 

These are just a few examples of the steps the larger platforms are taking in this space, in an approach that has so far tended to centre around policing content and users: Facebook recently banned a spate of far-right figures and channels from its platforms, and its roughly 7500 human moderators review more than 10 million suspect posts per week. 

What if there was another way to bridge the empathy gap and engender more constructive conversation online? A number of recent cultural innovations are attempting to do just that, some of which are outlined in the ‘Change My View’ section of Flamingo’s latest issue of The Frame (a taster version of which is available for download here). But it’s not an easy fix. 

One of the most interesting examples explored is the eponymous Change My View, which began its life as a Reddit thread where a user shared their point of view, explained why they believed it, and invited other users to try and change their mind. It was created by Kal Turnbull (who is interviewed in The Frame), a 17-year-old Scot who says he was sick of the often vitriolic and one-sided nature of online interactions. The conversations on Change My View are thoughtful, carefully considered and respectfully worded. Users who successfully change another’s mind are rewarded with a ‘delta’; and this happens surprisingly often. As Brett Johnson, one of the moderators on the community explains: “most places on the internet, most places in the world, they reward you for being right. But this [is] a community that celebrates being wrong.” 

This idea of reward is particularly interesting when we consider the way larger social media platforms work. What if instead of the ‘like’ button (or indeed the often requested ‘dislike’ button), other platforms operated on something comparable to a ‘delta’ system, where users drew their validation not from people agreeing or disagreeing with their content, but from people engaging with it in a more meaningful way? 

Six years after its inception, Change My View boasts a 700,000-strong community and claims former US president Barack Obama among its fans. In April 2019, Change My View launched its own website, ChangeAView.com, with funding from Alphabet’s tech incubator, Jigsaw. The website was built from scratch and the design was entirely structured around encouraging dialogue. Awarding deltas has been simplified and prioritised, and a ‘shine’ button (to denote a particularly illuminating comment) has been added. The UX itself reflects the platform’s ethos of dialogue and debate. 

For larger legacy platforms, making structural changes is harder; Dorsey has spoken previously about how he would never have included the ‘like’ button if rebuilding Twitter from scratch. Zuckerberg has gone one step further, recently announcing that he would be trialling a version of Instagram in Canada that doesn’t feature the ‘like’ button at all. 

But the argument for a UX overhaul overlooks the most crucial reason for Change My View’s success: people come to the website because they want to have their view changed. But, for most people, having your view challenged is frightening, particularly when it comes to deep-seated values. Your points of view are part of what forms your identity; digital tribalism is what defines much of our online behaviour. We look to social media to validate and reaffirm who we think we are and want to be, to give us a sense of belonging. 

This is part of the reason that social media platforms have grappled with the spread of controversial content, such as misinformation about elections, anti-vaccination stories, violence and hate speech. It’s a global challenge but is particularly pronounced in ‘at-risk’ countries, and there are a number of different levers to play with as part of a comprehensive strategy to tackle misinformation. One of these is design; if we can create online communities, or adapt existing ones, to feel welcoming without being homogenous, and that invite debate without inciting vitriol, then we are one step closer to changing the way people speak to one another. The other three levers are: control (e.g. removing information, reducing distribution, blocking users), educate (e.g. increasing digital literacy skills) and persuade (e.g. consumer marketing to encourage/empower users to adopt positive behaviours). 

Knowing which lever to use, how, and in what combination is the challenge. Flamingo can help you to understand which is most appropriate for your behaviour-change problem. If you’d like to know more, please get in touch at enquiries@flamingogroup.com

Giulia Spissu, Flamingo