@Large | Michael Andor Brodeur

Online, empathy adapts to survive


Is empathy dead? I ask because it seems like the thing to do.

“Is the internet killing empathy?” asks a headline on CNN – in a story that wonders if we’ve “become a society of detached voyeurs.”

“The End of Empathy?” gasps a Psychology Today piece, responding to the far more certain-seeming Fox News piece from Keith Ablow: “The End of Empathy.” (“I have been sounding the alarm about this psychological epidemic for a long time,” he brags.)


Elsewhere, the Times wants to know “Is Declining Empathy the Internet’s Fault?”; the Huffington Post notes that “Non-Human Animals Show Empathy. What Happened to Ours?”; and Scientific American posits the question: “What, Me Care?”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

These are just a few. And while Betteridge’s Law assures us that in the vast majority of cases, headlines framed as questions reliably warrant a response of “no,” this worry over empathy’s dwindling health under the care of technology has been with us at least 10 years now, lining up neatly with the rise of the most commonly cited culprit: social media. (Though others just blame Tylenol.)

Maybe there’s something to it. Social media certainly has a way of nudging us toward narcissism [snaps selfie, caption: “Me making a point.”], which is never a good starting point for compassion. Day by day, it also desensitizes us, as images of violence (from #fail videos to footage of police brutality to YouTube posts from distant war zones) scroll in and out of our consciousness. Nor does it help that our lives online are algorithmically refined to reinforce our existing social and ideological bubbles, so there’s seldom any need (or desire) to click beyond our desires.

And then there’s the actual physical isolation of the Internet. Studies have suggested a close relationship between our ability to empathize with others and nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language — which the Internet subtracts altogether. Many point to this absence as the source of our increasing and increasingly callous disregard for each other.

If you need proof that it’s a problem, watch as technology tries its hardest to fix it: Already, facial recognition and AI are equipping our devices to be more responsive to emotional cues (essentially emulating empathy), and the widening world virtual reality is being touted as our best chance at a modern-day “empathy engine,” in part by restoring presence to discourse.


Is our empathy deficit really so grim? In an election season like this one, characterized by such extreme polarization and coarseness, it’s tempting to accept as fact the notion that empathy is dead and gone — and that online, it’s every man, woman, and troll for themselves.

But it’s just as easy to find evidence that our instinct to identify with each other is alive and well — it’s just taken more subtle forms.

There are those tiny little ways we empathize dozens of times a day: Any time we tap to “like” or “love” or post a frowny face or otherwise simpatico emoji, we are processing a kind of nanocompassion — a nonverbal nod, a virtual hand on the shoulder. Similarly, the lexicon of online chat has developed new ways of signaling solidarity — if you’ve ever seen “same” (or “sames”) as a one-word response, or an all caps instance of “THIS^” used to prop a previous point, you’ve observed a microexpression of empathy. Add to this list the retweet, the share, the follow.

In a more (literal) macro sense, certain memes have also become a vehicle for exercising empathy. Take “Me AF” (which translates to “me as [expletive]” — which itself translates, roughly, to “this, right here, is me.” “Me AF” is often appended as a caption to images, GIFs, video clips, screenshots of text message exchanges, or other bits of media that somehow poetically capture the spirit, mood, or condition of the poster.

There’s also “tfw” — short for “that feel/feeling when.” Originating as a plaintive expression of loneliness on message boards (“>twf no gf,” or “that feeling I get when I have no girlfriend”), “twf” graduated into its own category of meme, presenting highly specificemotionalstates with the presumption it will find some measure of universiality.


Granted, cultivating real connections with others goes beyond identifying with a sad-looking French bulldog on a Monday morning; and given what it has given us, the memescape can hardly be considered fertile ground for compassion.

But I do find some glimmers of hope in these small, seemingly insignificant gestures. A silly tweet can tell us that we are not isolated by our anxieties; an unflattering pic of Ted Cruz can bring us together for an unflattering group portrait. Yes, the Internet has made narcissists out of us, but it also gives us plenty of ways to see past our own reflections.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.