Using the Internet to find empathy in solitude

Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually  agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

So writes Adam Brault in a very thoughtful blog post, I quit Twitter for a month and it completely changed my thinking about mostly everything. Just when I think that I have read as many blog posts about digital fasts as I need to in this lifetime, along comes a deeply reflective piece like Adam’s to make me once again evaluate the merits of taking a break from one or more online activities.

Adam’s key point is that by engaging us with people we care about through a constant stream of updates, Twitter subjects us to recurring distractions that preclude sustained thought. As Adam writes:

I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I’ve realized how Twitter has made me break up my thoughts into tiny, incomplete, pieces—lots of hanging ideas, lots of incomplete relationships, punctuated by all manner of hanging threads and half-forked paths. I am perfectly fine with unfinished work—in fact, I doubt I’ll ever be a better finisher than I am a starter. But I’ve found that my greatest joy, deepest peace, and most valuable contributions come from intentionally choosing where to let my focus rest.

I couldn’t agree more with his focus on focus, but what is really interesting is the way he struggles with the tension between focus and empathy:

Empathy is, in one sense, the mental capacity to run a (poor) simulation of someone else’s thoughts and feelings inside our own head….From my experience, Twitter taps into this same mental capacity very well….But the problem that occurs is that it can be a huge mental lease we’re signing when we invite a few hundred people into our Twitter life…Mentally, we just aren’t capable of simultaneously empathizing with hundreds of people—let alone thousands or millions. The result is we either build up a calloused, jaded, or cynical defense against empathy or find a way to block out more.

This is an argument  that gets us way beyond the now-tired argument that the Internet makes us distracted and disconnected. Brault is arguing that it’s precisely because the Internet is so good at fostering real, meaningful connections that distraction becomes a problem. We’re not distracted by meaningless noise: we’re distracted by meaningful engagement.

But distracted from what? In Brault’s case, it’s distraction from projects that require sustained attention, like writing or any form of creative output. Goodness knows, it’s a problem I can relate to, since I never tweet more than on the days when I’m doing focused writing, but find myself continually hitting the mental refresh button by popping into HootSuite.

There’s a more intriguing possibility here, however. What if our model of focus — and especially, our model of focused creativity — doesn’t have to revolve around the solitary artist in his garret? After all, a garret isn’t so different from a fortress, or an ivory tower, or any of the other lonely-buildings-turned-metaphor, all of which are used to describe the state in which someone cuts off from the world — cuts off from people — in order to do their own thinking, writing or creating.

The Internet allows us a new model of solitary focus: one in which we are both alone and with others; both focused and engaged. Perhaps it’s precisely that unceasing engagement — that unceasing renewal of empathy — that will let solitary creatives create in new ways. I can’t wait to read the novel, hear the song or revel in the painting that emerges from a dual immersion in solitude and empathy.

5 practices to humanize online communication

What does it mean to take online life seriously as real life? Here’s another reason to reject the idea of “IRL” (“In Real Life”) as the opposite of life online.

When you visualize the real person you’re about to e-mail or tweet, you bring human qualities of attention and empathy to your online communications.

That’s the second item in my list of 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your life online, on the Harvard Business Review site. It’s a practice I started working on a couple of years ago, but there are some moments that require it more than others.  For example, when responding to online criticism, like this comment on yesterday’s post:

You sound like a PR person for Facebook: Real Names, Real-named Friends only, so we can MONETIZE your whole life and all your relationships.Thanks, but no thanks.

Grandmother with child (not the one I'm writing about)I put my own advice into action in replying to this comment. I was able to find a great picture of the commenter staring right into a camera with her granddaughter in her lap, and I kept that on screen while writing my response. Below, you’ll find my tips on how to make this kind of practice work. But first, here’s the response it helped me write:

Dear M-

I wanted to personally respond to your comment on my HBR post yesterday. I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback by your comment, because I’m actually deeply skeptical about all these efforts to monetize what happens online.  I’m reaching out because the fact that you raised these concerns suggests that you and I may in fact share very similar perspectives on the web and where it should be going. But it seems like you didn’t read it that way, so I find myself wondering whether I need to reframe how I talk about the problem with accepting behaviour online that we wouldn’t accept offline.

Meanwhile I hope you don’t mind me turning this into a case study in one of the “10 reasons” I gave in my post. My second reason for treating online life as real is that people are kinder to each other online when they are able to connect to the real person they’re communicating with; I try to visualize the people I’m writing to or about, especially in challenging circumstances, because I think it gets me to write in a more human and considerate way. I’ve written this while looking at a very lovely picture of you that makes me feel we probably have a lot in common — I have a little guy who is just the same age as your granddaughter, and from your obvious delight in her presence I feel a lot more connected to you.

And my guess is that you might have written your comment a bit differently if you’d been looking a picture of me (especially this one).  Now that you point it out, I can see how the idea of being “real” online might be appropriated as a communications strategy for Facebook’s policy against pseudonyms, although it’s not at all what I’m aiming for — in fact, I think pseudonyms can be an incredibly helpful part of getting real online, as I wrote yesterday. But it took me quite a while to get through to your underlying point because the tone was pretty rough.

This is exactly why I think we need to get real online — so that we hold ourselves to the same high standards of personal consideration (or at least conflict avoidance) that we would face-to-face. I hope it’s ok that I’ve made you part of that mission by writing to you here.

best wishes,

Alex

Here are 5 practices that helped me write this message, and which can help you bring out the best in your own online communications:

  1. Find a picture you can relate to. If you know the person you are blogging (or tweeting) to (or about), you can visualize the while you write. But whether you’re writing to a stranger or a friend, it can be helpful to look at a photo while you’re writing. A Google image search might turn up a photo of that person in a silly hat, cuddling their dog or knitting a sweater.
  2. Go somewhere private. I wanted to connect with M’s picture the way I would in a face-to-face conversation: by speaking, not writing. That meant talking out loud, but I would have felt very goofy talking to a photo while my husband sat next to me on the sofa. Finding a private corner can help you talk (or write) in a natural voice and connect with your instinctive empathy.
  3. Practice your typing. The talk-to-write methodology is a lot easier if you’re a fast typist and can basically type along with what you’re saying out loud. If that’s too much of a stretch, try recording what you want to say and then transcribing the parts that feel write — or use a service like Jott to do it for you.
  4. Think of your reply as private. Whether you’re conveying appreciation or a more difficult message, it’s easier to write if you focus only on the person you want to reach. When I wrote my recent post about family, I wrote it for just one person, and I did the same with my letter to M. Once you’ve got a first draft that feels like it’s authentically communicating with that person, you can edit it for public sharing if you wish, but don’t edit too much — if it seems like there are a lot more qualifiers (“I hope”, “I feel”) above than in my usual posts, that’s because talking in a human way involves speaking more gently than you write.
  5. Be willing to walk away. If you’re visualizing the person you’re writing to, sometimes you’ll realize that they don’t want to hear what you have to say. Unsent letters and unpublished blog posts are an important part of communicating with integrity. If you know you have your own permission to walk away and leave a message unsent, unfinished or unshared, you’ll know that the messages you do send will be ones that you can stand behind.

In this last respect, my response to M. fails to meet the standards I advocate here. When I looked M. in the face, I found myself wondering how she’d feel about being turned into a case study. I hope that she’ll appreciate that my only goal is to illustrate and underscore a practice that I hope can humanize the many online conversations that lie ahead.

Looking for more practices to help you get real online? Come back for more as I work my way through all 10 reasons to stop apologizing for online life.