Thoughts on Empathy in Social Media

When my good friend Zach Kahn tweeted out his thoughts regarding empathy in the action of unfollowing someone on Twitter, it made me want to jump in with my own thoughts on the topic. We agreed to write this post together as a way to discuss the trend toward more emotion being built-in to social platforms, and how this emotion can help users better express themselves on social sites.

The Problem With “Like”

Current interaction methods on social platforms, including (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) are relatively nascent. They permit and communicate just one form of interaction at a time but (typically) carry the significance of more than one action (input), emotion (output), and reaction (input, repeat).

The “Like” button on Facebook, for example, doesn’t solely represent that you appreciate, enjoy, or personally associate with a particular post or page. Technically, Liking something on Facebook means that you would like to see more content relating to that post, and would like to see more posts from, or related to, that page. Emotionally, it means that you ascribe a “unit” of value (whether that be positive, sympathetic, understanding, etc.) to the post or page, whereby the degree to which that unit is “valuable” is both individually decided and universally understood. As seen by the examples above, this can be pretty ambiguous to say the least.

However, in the case of Facebook, they’ve been making strides to try to end this emotional rift by introducing “Reactions” to their platform.

This seems to be the best solution to the problem so far, providing universally (culturally, linguistically) understood and acceptable emotions in the form of gender, race, and ethnically-neutral animated faces.

Popular workplace application Slack has attempted to solve this problem as well by allowing users to react to messages with whatever emoji they choose. However, that leaves the user 1,620 options for potential reactions, each carrying their own meaning.

This exposes a secondary tension: by giving people a greater power to more accurately express themselves, you increase the likelihood that this expression is ambiguous (and therefore misinterpreted), as it requires the recipient to have as good a knowledge of the available tools as the sender. The bigger the emotional toolkit, the harder the task of becoming intimately familiar with that toolset. Furthemore, the more the toolset changes, the greater the likelihood of causing cognitive fatigue and, by extension, ambiguity. These are proportional relationships. You don’t want to limit people’s ability to accurately express themselves, but you don’t want to foster ambiguity either.

This week, Twitter is now operating with the same set of expectations as Facebook and Instagram since the move from the favorite (using a star) to the like (using the heart). However, the action of “liking” something remains ambiguous. What it means to the sender may not be in sync with what it means to the receiver, irrespective of language, location, and a variety of other barriers to perfect communication which can cause miscommunication at best, and harm (bullying, for example) at worst.

“Friend” vs. “Follow”

Following or friending across social networks allows you to connect with people, but the words themselves offer different meanings.

Snapchat and Facebook use the term “Friend” to describe your network. The definition of friend is “one attached to another by affection or esteem”. This suggests an intimate relationship with the person, they’re someone on your same level, they’re someone you’re close to. Knowing the close-knit network that Snapchat promotes, it makes sense why they would choose this phrasing.

On Instagram and Twitter, you “Follow” people. The definition of follow is “to go or come or come after or behind”, “to accept as authority”, “to copy after”. It suggests that this person is of a higher value than you, that you want to learn from them or you believe they can lead you to something. As mentioned previously, Facebook has been using the “Following” feature, atop its traditional “Friending”, as the platform has moved toward more public content.

There is already a platform and context-driven distinction regarding the types of individuals who interact with you on a social platform. This is to say that not every platform features “friends,” and not every initiating interaction on a specific platform (let’s take Facebook, for example) is singular (“friending”). Facebook has both “Friends” and “Followers,” and each action is technically and emotionally unique. This is an example of Facebook adding greater context and empathy to an input method between individuals on the platform.

What do you feel when you follow someone?

Technically, in regards to following, many networks want to communicate the idea that you’ll see more of what you choose to follow, whether that’s more of a person, a brand, or a particular type of content (technology, movies, politics), etc.

Emotionally, a follow can be used to communicate interest. The digital equivalent of walking down the street, or a school hallway, and nodding to the person you’ve locked eyes with while passing on their left.

Or perhaps you want to communicate enthusiasm, exhilaration. You’ve bettered yourself for having made a new connection, so why not encourage the input? Perhaps you could visualize this like the getting a mushroom in Super Mario Bros. Tapping on the follow button effuses a power up, of sorts.

However, we also know that friends follow each other on Twitter/Instagram all the time. With this in mind, is there a useful way for users to describe why they’re following you? Is there a way to make the follow button more versatile so that user has context behind why they’re following them? How would this context be helpful for a user? Does this seem like something only power users would really utilize?

Sites such as LinkedIn have attempted to answer these questions by allowing you to input context behind how you know someone, in an attempt to jog the recipient’s memory and prevent unnecessary spamming. LinkedIn, being a professional social network, focuses on professional context when describing connections. The existing interpersonal relationships and associated cultural norms that inform these (professional) tools afford these distinctions in a universally comfortable, non-derogatory way:

However, as anyone that has used LinkedIn for a considerable amount of time knows, there’s a way to bypass this whole system. Selecting “friend” allows users to bypass the extra steps that selecting other options would provide, causing many to select that option even if another selection would be more appropriate. It’s also because the input has no meaningful output for the user, so the context is not useful.

Meaningful output is essential for users to contribute meaningful input into these social networks and while we don’t necessarily have the answers to these problems, we do have shared assumptions and criteria for how this should change over time:

  • People want to know why they are being followed and perhaps they’d like to use this information to better their profiles or even themselves.
  • The current tools or interaction methods for relieving this inquiry are fairly insufficient for discovering more about your personal network.
  • The current tools must evolve in a way so that people can achieve this and understand more about their network without causing additional social problems that threaten the desired objectivity and enjoyment of these networks.


This brings us back to the idea that, when Unfollowing a person, users should be prompted in the same way that they are when dismissing an advertisement, being asked for input/context behind why they unfollowed the person.

There’s the notion that context behind an unfollow would give users constructive feedback as to how they improve the content of their posts and perhaps provide tips for what to post in the future. This sounds great in a perfect world, but in reality, context behind unfollowing makes the user feel more self conscious about what they post on the social network and promote conformity all around. If a user only wants to post Taylor Swift songs and another user unfollows them and says that their posts aren’t relevant, then that’s obviously going to hurt the user’s feelings and make them less likely to express themselves on that social network. Or, imagine if a user had a family member die and people began to unfollow them because they were saying that the user was too sad.

We understand the need for constructive feedback, but think that this should only be present in a professional context. Giving users direct feedback as to how their posts are good/bad doesn’t seem like a fun social media app, it seems like a gladiator deathmatch where you’re trying to find the best possible content so you don’t get harassed by unfollows. You aren’t being yourself, you’re being your social media self. As a society we need to move closer to the real self, not the “social media self”. It makes sites such as Twitter seem less like of a social media platform and more like a weight loss/fitness app, except it isn’t pushing you toward a scientific goal measured by calories, but instead a socially-imposed goal of fitting in.

Final Thoughts

It’s obvious that dealing with empathy on social media is a tricky subject given the vast amount of opinions behind the subject. It appears that many can agree that there is a problem, but what we cannot agree on is exactly how we should solve it. Sites such as Facebook have been making strides toward fostering a wider range of emotion and expression behind actions, but this doesn’t necessarily provide enough context for the user. There may never be a “right” answer to this problem, but it’s important for both users and the networks themselves to continue to keep this in mind as we move forward towards creating a more connected world.

Have anything we should add? Feel free to comment, tweet Zach or Andrew, or write a response!

Feel free to learn more about us by following Andrew on Twitter and Zach on Twitter.