Does Facebook Erode Empathy?

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One of the arguments in Jaron Lanier’s book “10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” is that the business models of social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have a negative effect on our ability to empathize with other humans.

Losing empathy makes it harder to understand others, which makes it more difficult to engage with each other and generally just get along in society.

This argument was perhaps the most disturbing that I read in his book.

It was mostly disturbing because it rang true.

How Could Facebook Erode Empathy?

The logic behind the theory that a social media business model (i.e. Facebook’s) could erode our ability to empathize with others goes something like this:

    1. If you have a Facebook account1, you only see your own Facebook account
    2. Facebook customizes your feed for you… Specifically on an individual basis
    3. If you are a ____________ (fill in the blank… “Trump supporter”, “Clinton supporter”, birther, climate change believer, InfoWars supporter, Planned Parenthood supporter, treehugger, fundamentalist Christian, atheist, etc…) Facebook knows this.
    4. Because Facebook “knows you” from #3 above, Facebook customizes your feed only for you. 2 The feed is believed to be based on:
      1. What anonymous 3rd party advertisers have paid Facebook to reach you
      2. What Facebook thinks you will “like” based on your past history both on Facebook and elsewhere on the web
    5. Because you only see your Facebook feed, and not anyone else’s, you can’t know what they see that causes them to think the way they do.
    6. As such, you merely think people who disagree with you are “crazy” for thinking that way… You have no data to provide an understanding for their thinking because Facebook does not offer perspective.
    7. Because you have no data to help you understand why others think the way they do, you write them off instead of empathize with them and their points of view.

Jaron Lanier helped build virtual world “Second Life”… And his work in virtual reality is responsible for current advances in Oculus Rift and other popular technologies today… As such, he has a unique perspective on technology and its impact on human behavior.

Take the “Should I Delete My Social Media Accounts” Quiz and find out how much you know about what social media could be doing to you…

Footnotes

  1. As of this post there are roughly 2.4 billion Facebook accounts.
  2. The customization is automatically served by an algorithm and how it works is opaque to us… No one, perhaps not even Mark Zuckerberg, knows exactly how the feed works.