Facebook and Twitter Are Trying To Kill My Empathy…and Burn the Body

social media comments leadership trainingNever read the comments.

That’s a sanity-saving rule for All Things Internet. It’s served me well for at least twenty years. Generally, I follow it, because, well, ugh, comments are the id’s off-leash dog park. Sometimes, when I’m feeling masochistic, I don’t.

Which leads me to today’s reflection. I was re-reading Leader Effectiveness Training the other day and ran across a singular, simple sentence that made me stop short and then go pour myself a strong drink.

Wait, what? How could such a positive book send me to the liquor cabinet with the tallest glass in my condo, full to the brim with ice?

It was this:

“Rather conclusive evidence emerged that at least two ingredients are necessary in any relationship of one person fostering growth and psychological health in another—empathy and acceptance.” (L.E.T., Dr. Thomas Gordon, p. 64)

I looked up from the book and over at my iPad, which was at that very moment chirping and buzzing and bleeping with notifications.


Hey, look! My friends had thoughts they wanted to share. I should open the apps and check it out. But honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because, especially in the past year or so, Facebook and Twitter have started to feel like Miller Lite ads from the 80s— never-ending shouting matches. Tastes Great! Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling!

It doesn’t actually matter whether the issue people are arguing over is deep and incendiary, like religion or politics, or as trivial as whether to put beans in chili—somebody is almost guaranteed to leap into the comments, pee in the cornflakes, and throw an elbow, just for the joy of watching a nosebleed.

And then, occasionally—usually when the weather gets cold and the first freeze happens—a “pain porn” video shows up in my Facebook feed. Every year. Like clockwork. Now that videos automatically start to play in the feed, there’s no avoiding seeing it: A poor schlub who thinks he’s about to jump through a thin layer of ice, as he jumps on the diving board, up, up, up in the air and comes crashing down, down, down…and lands on what may as well be concrete. A frozen-solid swimming pool. Probably breaking his tailbone in the process. In all likelihood sustaining back injuries that will be with him for the rest of his life. Experiencing the kind of pain I cannot even imagine.

My friends, I like to think, are not sadistic. And yet they keep sharing this video, and others like it. Children crashing bicycles. People falling off roofs. A couple being married near a pool falling into it. And on and on and on. There’s nothing particularly new about pain and humiliation offered up as comedy—heck, America’s Funniest Home Videos was doing this back in the 80s, just not with incidents that probably required traction and ambulances—but I do wonder whether the immediate and overwhelming availability of all this real, unvarnished awfulness is eroding our ability to truly feel empathy.

I know my stomach churns when I see it, but when I read the comments, hoping to find some expressions of sympathy or empathy, I’m generally disappointed. And that frightens me.

And so I’ve begun to wonder, is it me? Is empathy for the victims in these videos standing in the way of my acceptance of those who find humor in them? After all, what’s done is done, right? The guy who jumped onto the frozen pool already did it; there’s no going back and not jumping. Does it really matter that his misadventure was captured on video, and that years later, millions of people can continue to watch it and call him a “dumb-a**” (or worse) in the comments?

On Twitter, things are even more brutal—perhaps because 140 characters requires cutting to the chase tout suite. This, and the fact that it’s the most anonymous of all social media platforms, may account for the prevalence of abuse on Twitter—an April 2015 study showed that 88% of online abuse happens there. (In some feminist circles, it’s wryly said that if you haven’t received a death- or rape-threat, you basically haven’t even begun to Tweet.)

That one sentence in a nearly 40-year-old book gave me a lot to think about and reflect on. I feel the empathy deficit not only on social media but also in “real life.”

Is it just me? Or could a lot of us use a refresher course on empathy? Empathy is hard. Really hard. But it’s the foundation of genuine communication, and I think we may forget that sometimes. It’s easier to step backward, to bring down that emotional wall between me and somebody who’s in pain; so much easier to use communication roadblocks than to risk real, open communication, which can be messy or uncomfortable.

I’ve decided that my mission, going forward, is at minimum not to contribute to the empathy deficit. I’ve always tried to make my social media activity positive—not Polyannish, certainly, but humorous and entertaining. I’m rededicating myself to that goal and pledging not to get involved in whatever endless Tastes Great! Less Filling! argument du jour is swirling around this week; not to spend as much time staring in horror at humans being inhuman on Twitter; and, yes, to keep on not reading the comments.

It’s a start.

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