In late spring of 2010, a study performed by researchers at the University of Michigan reported that today’s college students are 40% less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. The research quickly made headlines, gaining press in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Scientific American. Some pundits pointed fingers at video games and social media as causes of the declining empathy rate, while others offered prescriptions for addressing the problem. Very few, however, asked the question of how the results of this study might affect the digital media business? The article provides some insight into that question.
The Case for Blaming Digital Media
The amount of content that has become available to the average college student has grown exponentially since the year 2000. Today, a student logging onto the internet is exposed to a world of articles, blogs, videos, games, and social networking that was simply unimaginable a decade ago. The web has exploded in the last ten years, and information has been democratized.
Researches in the University of Michigan study found that the greatest decrease in empathy also occurred in the last decade. Thus, it is easy to hypothesize that there is a correlation between the growth of digital media and the decline of empathy. So far, however, no such definitive connection has been found. There is evidence that playing violent video games does reduce ones compassion for the pain of others, but this hasn’t been shown to carry over to an overall lack of empathy. Similarly, a recent San Diego State study found that college students are more narcissistic today than they were a generation ago, but this finding does not necessarily mean that the Internet is to blame.
How Digital Media Providers Need to Respond
Despite the lack of definitive evidence, placing blame on digital media for the woes of society is an increasingly popular tactic by members of our society. What this means for digital content companies is that, whether or not validly, they will continue to be viewed under an increasingly harsh microscope. How they respond to this scrutiny can have serious implications for their future success. The digital media industry needs to take three steps to ensure that they are treated equitably and fairly when it comes to changing public perception:
First, they need to illustrate how their technologies connect people to one-another, and how this connection can indeed promote empathy. The recent viral video Kony 2012, produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children, is an excellent example of how that can happen. In just one week, this documentary about the cruel dealings of the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony was viewed a record 100 million times on YouTube. People all over the world watched this movie and shared their moral outrage at the way Kony was using child-soldiers. They expressed, for all intents and purposes, a great deal of empathy.
Second, the digital media industry needs to continue to develop technologies that foster inter-personal relations. Facebook, LinkedIn, and others ostensibly do this already, but their format could be better suited to serve this end. For Facebook, one improvement might be to consider changing their “timeline” feature so that people a user is significantly interconnected with are featured prominently within it. For LinkedIn, focusing more on business relationships, and less on business connections could go a long way in fostering empathetic users. They could also add sections for users to express their professional goals, dreams, and aspirations. Doing so would make members seem less like means to others’ business ends, and more like autonomous ends in their own right.
Finally, the digital media industry needs to embrace empathy as an ethical value. Ethics is generally looked at as the actions that an entity ought to undertake, and therefore it is fairly prescriptive. As such, espousing empathy as an ethical value might be a challenge for some tech companies that don’t like being told what to do. Eventually, however, they will realize that doing so strongly aligns them with the desires of their constituents, which exactly where most businesses want to be. Thus while companies might initially buy into empathy to appease critics, they are likely to find that their public relations and bottom line end up getting a boost as a result.
One unfortunate side-effect of the democratization of information – that is, its ready availability to everyone – is that it is often taken out of context. This negative consequence is generally not the fault of researchers, who gather their data with rigor and objectivity, but rather just an attribute of human nature. Human beings are problem-solvers, and they will speculate if it helps them to answer a question. This means that, whether right or wrong, they will go out of their way to find validation for their theories.
In regards to the digital media industry, this human characteristic is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it was people’s desire to find answers to problems that helped grow the Internet in the first place. Wanting better answers to questions is the reason that Google is one of the largest companies on the planet. On the other hand, it also means that digital media companies will increasingly come under scrutiny as societal woes are brought to the forefront of public conversation. It is silly for tech companies to try to ignore this problem, because the public certainly will not ignore them. Digital technology dominates nearly every facet of our lives, and it is always going to be in our minds when it comes to cultural analysis.
By hiding like the elephant in the room, the digital media industry becomes the elephant in the room. A much better solution would be for them to demonstrate to the public why they are not the elephant at all. They can do this by illustrating how their technologies foster empathy between people, improving those technologies, and embracing empathy as an ethical value. Ultimately, doing so can help shift the public’s view of them from part of the problem, to part of the solution.