Is the Internet Making Us Less Compassionate?

In a recent TED talk, Monica Lewinsky expressed the view that the internet might be making us less compassionate. Lewinsky explains how she was one of the first people to be trolled en masse by a nascent internet.  Her 18-minute talk, entitled “The Price of Shame” describes how she was “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously”.

Her downfall was catalyzed, not through traditional media sources, but through the web. The unfortunate details of her affair were broken online before being picked up by the news channels, and it was through email, forums and website comment sections that the most pernicious and cruel remarks were made.

monicaWith the arrival of internet 2.0 and social media, people became increasingly able to share stories and opinions at the click of a button, leading to what Lewinsky calls a “mushrooming” of cyberbullying and slut-shaming. While some blogs and websites require you to log in with your public Facebook or Twitter account, most allow users to post anonymously. It is behind the veil of anonymity that trolls are able to bully, taunt, slander and offend their unfortunate victims. Lewinsky concludes her talk by saying that “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop…We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.”

The way the internet is structured has forced us to shake up our previous notions of public and private. Like the trolls, we may wish to converse in the public sphere without revealing our identity. Alternatively, and more commonly, we do post under our own names, but project an idealised image of ourselves.

A recent story on ESPN highlights one of the negative consequences of digital life. It explains how Madison Holleran, a promising college athlete, committed suicide partly as a result of comparing her own imperfect real life to the idealized accounts of her peers’ seemingly perfect lives as projected on their social media accounts. Comparing yourself to others is a barrier to self-compassion; self compassion means being kind to yourself and realizing that you are one imperfect human amongst others.


Photo courtesy of R4vi (Flickr)

Quora user Mira Weisenthal describes the feeling of loneliness one gets through heavy internet use as akin to moving to a big city like New York. They both involve “constant access to thousands of people (a kind of stimulus overload), which makes each interaction no more meaningful than the last; and … a lack of cultural “footing” — learned social norms and expectations, which typically characterizes a community.” She suggests that the natural state of humanity is to live in small, compassionate communities, whereas city life and internet life create large, insensitive seas of faceless humanity. When the private life becomes public life, we lose our natural sense of compassion towards one another.

The culture of ‘upvoting’ or ‘liking’ might be a way of spreading compassion. As this Psychology Today article says, receiving an internet ‘like’ is probably better than having no positive feedback at all, given that many of us live relatively atomised lives. To ‘like’ something is to express empathy for the other’s point of view. It allows us to show that we understand, however superficially, the psychological needs of others – something that popular psychologist Marshall Rosenberg says is key to compassionate communication.

facebook‘Liking’ can also have practical, positive outcomes in the real world.  Pressure groups like 38 Degrees rely on the public liking, sharing and signing online petitions as a means to lobby Government.  Charities also raise awareness and funds through spreading their message online.  The negative side to all this is the danger of overloading the public with depressing messages, leading to either compassion fatigue or even possibly stress-related health issues.

While some  people use anonymity as a veil to abuse others, the vast majority of people find themselves being more careful about what they say online and taking more care to avoid offending others. The online persona we wittingly or unwittingly cultivate often requires us to delete a remark we just made, after realising it might upset or cause hurt to the reader. Just as we cannot know how many wars were prevented by religion, we cannot know how many unkind words were deleted before the author pressed ‘send’.

Trisha Prabhu, the fourteen-year-old finalist at Google’s Science Fair 2014 realised that the decision to ‘send’ is crucial in online cyberbullying. She invented a system called Rethink, which is essentially widgets which recognise potentially hurtful turns of phrase in your social messaging as you type. It then asks you whether you are sure you really want to send the message. Incredibly, it was found to cut the number of hurtful comments by 95% in a trial of 1500 volunteers.

For all its negative consequences, the freedom which the internet gives us to explore, communicate, learn, interact and join together with others is undoubtedly a good thing. It might be that the speed and frequency with which we communicate online occasionally switches off our self-monitoring radar, however.  Widgets like Trisha Prabhu’s might not be a guarantee of compassion, but they are a compassion facilitator.  They might serve to bring us back to reality, and make us feel more present in our conversations with others.

– Kerry Smallman