Written by Steve Bosak
“Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
There are over 3.14 billion people actively using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger each month.
Let’s oversimplify the stat above: With a global population of more than than 7.8 billion people, nearly half the world uses Facebook or its services every month. Social media has become a regular part of many of our lives. We use it to reconnect with old friends, stay in touch with loved ones, track what our high school and college classmates are up to, offer condolences to friends who’ve experienced a loss, and, my topic here, share opinions regarding current events and politics. In one sense, Facebook enables us to empathize with a wider circle of people, to read about others’ joyous occasions and learn about friends’ illnesses or challenges. Yet, as much as it connects, Facebook seems to divide; its algorithms sort us into interest groups and target political ads that will likely appeal to us (for more on potential harms of these algorithms read here).
I joined Facebook in 2008 when I was living in New Zealand. It was a great way to share my family’s experiences abroad with friends and family back in the US. Back then, I shared this type of photo on Facebook: my three kids (1,3, and 5 years old at the time) and me. (See inset photo). The caption for this photo read “Wellies, the official footwear of New Zealand, when you choose to wear any shoes at all.” Pretty innocuous.
When I scroll through my Facebook posts over the past few years, I see a timeline dominated by shared news articles on issues ranging from racism and gun control to religion and voting rights interspersed by nature photos and humorous videos. Often, I add my opinion or a summary of the issue in the caption for a shared article. These issue-oriented and political posts inevitably attract many “Likes” and smiley emojis. And, these posts also lead to argumentative responses from people who I’ve known for years.
Thus begins a cycle of contentious, public debate over current events. I posit my views and reinforce them. A few people object to my views with their replies. I see posts I find offensive or misguided on some of my connections’ Facebook timelines and I share my opposing view. Sometimes, I’m mostly a bystander and witness streams of tit for tat comments on friends’ pages that stretch on for days. In a recent discussion things got so bad that a high school friend told another group of high school friends to “Bite me.” People are emotional and combative in a very public way. Seldom does anyone change another person’s mind through this Facebook debate. If anything, these longer back-and-forths can veer towards spectacle, almost like a virtual street brawl with the crowd shouting encouragements or insults from the side.
Why am I addressing this topic on a blog that is about innovation and design?
It’s because I’m trying to find a way to use what I practice professionally to improve my relationships and interactions in my personal sphere. And, I’m wondering if human-centered design and its empathy focus can help the US and other countries bridge some of the ideological divides that seem to be exacerbated by social media.
At DTG, we educate clients about the value of applying empathy — towards customers, stakeholders, and employees — to build a deeper understanding of people’s values, needs, and desires. Only by understanding people on a meaningful level, we believe, will organizations be able to create products, services, and other solutions that truly serve their customers’ needs. This human-centered approach to innovation and problem-solving can be used in a variety of sectors including technology, healthcare, government, international development, financial services, and consumer products, as well as many other industries.
Wouldn’t it make sense to use a human-centered process for improving our politics, our daily lives and even our exchanges on Facebook and other social media? It would take time and effort, yes. It might not be fun, at first. But it might steer us away from a tendency to make, often, performative social media posts to demonstrate our wit or outrage. It’s easy to make a clever quip about a friend’s post with which you disagree, but those public expressions rarely sway others’ opinions or heal ideological divides.
There’s a view — expressed by my wife while I was writing this blog post — that it’s not really worthwhile to worry oneself about improving relations on a platform that encourages what seem like mostly shallow interactions: “Look at me on this mountain!” (Sentiment conveyed: “Yay, me!” Reactions received:“Yay, you!”) This view might offer that it’d be more challenging and enriching to apply this empathy to people who are disadvantaged and need your help. It’s an excellent point and one answer to my quandary could be to just turn off Facebook and just focus on building empathy in my community. But I think I’m after something that could be meaningful: Bridging a deep political divide that has engulfed our nation.
In October 2018, I attended our Design Thinking Conference in Amsterdam. One of the speakers at the conference, Fleur Ravensbergen, spoke about her truly strange and challenging job: Interviewing and listening to warlords in conflict-torn countries to learn their motivations and explanations for the often horrible violence they committed against innocent people and adversaries in their countries. This woman had to hear and record recollections of some disturbing stories that no sane person could ever excuse due to political disagreement. But the point of her work was to listen and understand, not to forgive or justify. And, by gaining an understanding, she was able to gain insight into the causes behind civil unrest and war crimes in these regions. Did she create a solution? Did she give comfort or approval to war criminals? No to both. But she delved into the motivations fueling dark acts and shared that knowledge with organizations that seek to prevent civil conflict and violence in unstable countries.
If that sounds too far out for this blog post, I’ll take you back to the easier side of this theme:
Ask yourself if there’s anyone in your life or your social media orbit with whom you find yourself disagreeing with on a regular basis. Is it worth it to you to understand why they hold the opinions that they hold? I’m not suggesting that empathizing with people we argue with will change our minds on a particular topic. But could it be helpful to comprehend, at least, what drives the sentiments that you find offensive?
I believe it could be useful to me, personally, so I resolve to attempt the following:
- Next time I see a Facebook post by a connection that raises my ire, I will not respond publicly on their page
- I will reach out directly to this connection to enquire openly and honestly about the feelings and thoughts behind the opinion s/he expressed
- I will engage this person in a private discussion about the topic that piqued my ire.
- Only after delving into their feelings and motivations and processing those will I offer my opinion and what it is based on.
I cannot say how long this effort will last but I endeavor to try it for a while. I will gladly report back on the results in a future post if we hear from our readers that they have interest in this blog post. And, I’d love to hear about your own attempts to apply human-centered design principles and empathy in your own online community.
Author Steve Bosak comes to innovation and design thinking from the environmental policy and advocacy field, having learned how to create pro-environmental coalitions to promote conservation causes in Congress during the 2000s. He has used his innovation and facilitation skills to craft policy, build coalitions, and create media and internet outreach strategies during his more than 20-year career.