Cultivating Empathy in the Digital Age: Feminism, Fads, and Fame

Photo by Gian Cescon on Unsplash.

I’ve been online since I was 6 years old. I am a member of Generation Z, a cohort born in the 1990s, defined by the experience of being “plugged-in” from a very young age. Like many of my generation, I have never not known life without social media. Social media is now intimately entwined with our experience and understanding of the world. It also has a direct bearing on how we come to know others, and how we treat them. We’ve come far from the days of hyper specific webpages and clunky Comic Sans blogs, and now centralized platforms are a huge part of our personal lives, both online and offline. 

Social media is therefore something with which feminism must contend. Empathy—the capacity to acknowldege and appreciate the experience of others—is essential to feminism’s larger project. The question is: how do we develop empathy in a world where our experience of other people is reduced and abstracted by technology?

Social media can be great, and it’s important to not overlook the positives. It allows users to connect in ways they might not otherwise, it creates opportunities to share information, and it grants people access to resources that might be hard to source otherwise.  No doubt, we’ve all benefited from it, but we can’t ignore the negative effects either.

I’ve seen it in my own life regularly. Last year’s high school cycle in St. John’s brought the rise of “posture accounts” on Instagram. The phenomenon involves people taking pictures of their schoolmates sitting in what are deemed “weird” positions and the images are sent into the account. The images then get posted for everyone to judge and potentially laugh at. Let’s say you are stressed out. You’ve just failed a test, and got into a fight with your best friend, so in class you’re sitting distracted, or dozing off because you didn’t sleep well. In reality you might need a little compassion and support, but online there is no space for that. Do the people sending in your picture, knowing full well that you will be ridiculed, care about your experience? No. You are no longer a person, just an image on a screen. Meanwhile, they collect numbers in the form of views. It’s all just another variation of a popularity contest, and if you think morals are a factor, you are sadly mistaken.

We all know social media is moving increasingly fast as the years pass by. Ten years ago, the go-to video entertainment platform was Youtube—and we’ve shifted away from long form content by a large margin. TikTok brings you short videos that average 7-15 seconds. The platform also comes programmed  with an algorithm that is constantly learning what you engage with so it can adapt its offerings to keep you watching. You sit down for a minute of scrolling, and suddenly your entire day has passed in that endless flow of content. Your brain has grown accustomed to consuming 15 seconds worth of content at a time. You are not going to have an easy time sitting down for an hour to read a long form article discussing the intricacies of the very same topic you just encountered in short and snappy video form. So how can we address our reactions to something like a bad posture picture posted for social ridicule?

We see posts like this that we don’t think twice about every day. Many marginalized groups are targeted in these “cringe” accounts. So much of the content we encounter subtly reinforces patriarchal ideas, often going entirely unnoticed. We need to ask ourselves and truly question what values these posts are reinforcing: what are the intentions of the poster, who is affected by this post, what is it trying to say to me? Scrolling past one joke about a nagging wife or other popular gendered stereotype is one thing, but being bombarded with a stream of it in your daily media intake is sure to weave its way into your psyche.

Here’s what I believe the real root of the issue is: our lives are so mediated by the Internet that it’s easy to lose sight of the real people behind the Internet. What can we, in our everyday lives,  in our local communities, do about this disconnect on social media? I am not advocating for you to throw your phone in a lake and go off the grid entirely. Abandoning social media and the Internet might create immediate relief for an individual (while also making their life more challenging in the long run), but it also wouldn’t help the overall social problem. So, then what?

The best thing we can do is to keep all of the puzzle-pieces of compassion, empathy and understanding in mind. Consume longer-form media to train our brains not to expect such quick dopamine bursts. Take screen time breaks. When you’re seeing a post, try to picture having a face-to-face conversation instead of a comment thread. Would you act the same way? Think about how it would feel if someone said that to you, as simple as it seems. Keep in mind how real people’s lives are turned into content, and try to be conscious of how social media reduces the larger context of complex issues. If you’re seeing a funny post about someone–even if it’s a picture of their bizarre posture as they sit in a St. John’s high school–make an effort to recognize the patterns of dehumanization that are at work. Maybe, even help others to notice this way of looking, too. It’s easy to lose sight of our sense of compassion, even if it’s right there in front of us. Consciously admitting our responsibilities to what we look at might just be the key to understanding this complex issue.

As you scroll, keep nuance, empathy and circumstance in the forefront of your mind–and maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a better time navigating this online experience.

Abbey Walsh,

Recreation Program Support Summer Student

St. John’s Women’s Centre

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