Can the Internet Actually Be an Empathy Boot Camp?


You may think you know who you’re talking to when you post on Facebook, Twitter or your blog. But the global reach of the internet means that your audience may be larger than you ever imagined.

When you learn to write you are taught that a deep understanding of your audience is essential to effective communication. On the internet, though, you are often shouting to your intended listeners as they stand in a thick, noisy crowd. You may be appealing directly to their interests and ambitions, but if their neighbor disagrees, you could still face pushback, complaints or even abuse. The potential for criticism from unexpected parties is, on the whole, positive – a boot camp in radical empathy, one that makes it ever more difficult to hide behind provincialism as an excuse for insensitivity. But for many, it’s disorienting.

Consider the mess that the respected Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad recently got in. Their review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between The World And Me bore an unexpected headline: “N—, are you crazy?” Only it didn’t say “N—.” As you might expect – especially given that the headline was in English and the piece was decorated with blackface illustrations – the furious response was not restricted to NRC subscribers.

The paper’s book supplement editor, Michel Krielaars, responded with a muddled nonapology. But amongst his flailing, Krielaars made a point that merits further investigation:

When choosing the headline, we aimed at the intended audience of the piece: Dutch readers of the book section (black, white, but: Dutch readers). Because ‘N—’ is an English word, the offensive value in Dutch is not as direct as it is in English, comparable with the effect of less racially sensitive swear words.

This is not a very good excuse as Dutch readers also speak English and are not stupid. It’s also naïve to imagine that your product will only be consumed by its intended audience. Krielaars is being disingenuous, but the problem he describes – that in the internet age, the “intended audience” of a piece and its actual reach may have nothing to do with each other – is a real and perplexing one.

It’s a problem that’s particularly disorienting for the social media small-timer who finds herself catapulted into the public eye. While I think racism, sexism, transphobia and so forth should be called out wherever they appear, I cringe when I see popular Twitter accounts bat around some ignorant high-school student with 90 followers. Though much of social media is public, users have intended audiences too – an internalized sense of how many people are listening, and what they’re like. People who abruptly discover that their awful joke for their awful friends now has a readership in the tens of thousands, may be more traumatized than chastened by discovery.

The same, with slightly fewer awful people involved, applies to users who unexpectedly find their tweets quoted in news stories. It can be alarming, especially if the tweet is of a personal nature or a controversial one. But journalists – probably the same ones who are trying to appeal to a particular audience and finding that the notion no longer applies – tend to defend themselves by saying that you can’t control or predict your readership on a public site. That’s true, to an extent, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see a remark you made to 60 friends appear in the New York Times.

“The idea that something you said in Idaho might be heard by a stranger in Florida: VERY weird. We don’t have any road map for that”, tweeted feminist writer Sady Doyle this week. (Yes, I asked her if I could quote that.) Social media has been around for a while, and the internet at large for even longer – but social conventions take a long time to develop and percolate through society. Our conversations are happening at a much larger scale than they used to, and it takes a while to acclimatize.

Those of us with any kind of platform – writers, public figures, social media stars – should welcome the disorientation of watching our intended audiences explode. It’s harder now to be convincing, and easier to put your foot in your mouth; you’re virtually guaranteed to accidentally hurt someone and have to apologize, or to incur the contempt of a reader who 20 years ago would never have seen your byline. But this lack of control over your audience forces you to consider more people’s needs more deeply, to become and remain more aware of the variety of human traumas, motives, histories and concerns.

We should extend some of that empathy, though, to the internet users – even the terrible ones – who thought they were talking to a smallish room and found themselves in a gladiatorial arena. As Doyle points out, we have no road map yet, and as with any new and tricky social challenge, a lot more people are going to show their butts before we work out a consistent ethos. Let’s treat them a little more kindly than they probably deserve.

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