Egotism or Global Empathy through Social Media?

Allison Boldt, Contributor

On the weekend of July 23-25, progressives from all over of the US piled into Las Vegas to attend the fifth annual Netroots Nation Convention. Self-described as “an incubator for ideas that challenge the status quo,” the annual convention offers a venue for progressives to exchange information through panel discussions, lectures and film screenings. While the primary focus of the convention is the use of technology to affect political change, the informative breakaway sessions this year included a wide range of topics: from “Mobilizing the ‘Other Half:’ Outreach Strategies for Non-College Youth” to strategies to overturn Citizens United. Speakers included environmentalist Van Jones and anti-war spokesperson Michael Hoh. Democrat leaders Reid and Pelosi were also in attendance to field questions and respond to demands from the attendees. There are hours of videos documenting the breakaway sessions.

With the Netroot emphasis on technology, one of the most widely discussed themes was the effective use of social media sites like blogs, Facebook and Twitter. In the last post, we discussed how Generation Y’ers are using these technologies to push their way into the traditional political system. In “So You Wanna Change the World? How to Rock on Social Networks,” activists from a variety of blogs and nonprofits presented social networking tips. Prominent blogger Cheryl Contee of Jack and Jill Politics, for example, outlined strategies to better your personal or organizational website. These included tracking the demographics of your users and making your site more mobile-friendly, pointing out that there is a smaller racial gap of Internet users when mobile users are accounted for.

Speaker Deanna Zandt, media consultant and author of Share This: How You WILL Change the World with Social Networking, addressed anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or MySpace account in her discussion of the importance of social media in creating “personal narratives.”  In this short clip, Zandt gives an example of one blogger’s use of tweets to inform her followers about her personal activities: right down to the mundane of eating barbeque. Zandt argues that by providing a venue for people to share their personal stories, social media helps us develop empathy, the root of political activism:

“The idea is not that these individual updates…matter, but that over time, you start to create a portrait of what your life is like when you’re sharing each one of those updates…And from there, we create empathy.  Empathy is the opposite of apathy; it’s the fundamental building block of social change.  That’s what we do when we share our stories, and social networks can facilitate that.”

Zandt’s argument challenged my views on this sort of public broadcast of private affairs.  I am the type that often cringes at the self-fascination of some of my peers on Facebook, polluting my newsfeed with “Chocolate Brownies, yummy!!!” To be sure, there is a fine line between sharing and egotism, and we all know people who flirt with this divide.  I wonder if the brownie type has the curiosity required for the development of empathy.  Doesn’t it often seem like they’re more interested in posting than in reflecting on the “portrait” of others? Or that the “portraits” they are likely to respond to are equally vapid?

At the same time, I think Zandt’s point is that to the person open to the experience of others, few topics are too vapid. Chocolate brownies and rainstorms and traffic jams—these are the mundane pieces that make our everyday lives what they are. To be constantly exposed to (and possibly even barraged by, for those that have hundreds and hundreds of Facebook friends) these details might actually transcend the status update.  Maybe the thing that has made me cringe for the last couple years is really a huge leap toward the illusive global empathy that philosophers like Appiah say the world needs.

In the introduction to his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that our world has evolved from countless sporadic tribes into one large “global tribe.” (xiii) Historically, our minds have been shaped by over a thousand years of living in small, localized tribes. The book poses the question: In this time of interconnectedness with roughly six billion strangers, how can we re-learn to live together?

The solution that Appiah offers is the moral philosophy of “cosmopolitanism.” (xiii) Cosmopolitans believe that as inhabitants of Earth, we all have responsibilities to each other. As in historically smaller tribes, each of us has a responsibility that every other member of the global tribe has his or her basic needs met. It follows that cosmopolitans “take seriously the value not just of human life, but particular human lives.” (xv) To this end, cosmopolitans emphasize the importance of global empathy: a genuine interest in the customs and beliefs that make each individual who he or she is. To establish this empathy on a global scale, Appiah argues we must engage in global, cross-cultural conversations. The ultimate hope is the establishment of collective values that transcend cultural and nationalistic differences.

From this cosmopolitan perspective, Zandt’s point is particularly interesting, given the global nature of social media. It’s wild that as an ordinary person with a Facebook account, I could, in theory, gain a fairly intimate picture of the life of another ordinary person in Beijing.

The thought makes me feel a little better about our generation.  Yes, we very well may be narcissistic as ^$*@ but hey! We’re contributing to a sense of empathy at the root of any great social movement.

One Response to Egotism or Global Empathy through Social Media?

  1. James Sasso says:

    While I can that empathy rises with the use of social media, I have a hard time believing tools such as Twitte really help to build community life. Personally the thought of constantly updating the world about my life is stupid. Who cares that I’m drinking coffee? Even in small communities people do not know every happenig of every person’s life. I find it unnecessary.

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