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The Empathic Web

Posted: 02/08/10 09:33 PM ET

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Arianna Huffington speak at a fundraiser for the wildlife rehabilitation organization Wildcare. Her focus was on the significance of activating empathy, in this case, even for the smallest inhabitants of our planet. Though she playfully labeled Wildcare low-tech but high-heart, the organization itself aspires to be high-tech which got me thinking about the impact and continuing evolution of the Social Web.

Can technology help us build channels that facilitate not just participation and engagement, but true empathy?

We have certainly seen an explosion of social communication beginning with blogs and most recently in the form of tweets echoing from the farthest corners of our world. Online experiences are in the process of being fully recast and re-centered, not around websites, but around individuals. For many, our days are now peppered with quick exchanges with friends and strangers alike on Facebook, Twitter, etc. These new social channels are making celebrity both demystified and tantalizingly accessible. Have you @replied to Bill Gates or Shaquille O'Neal? We cluster around trends and shout loudly into the ether at news cycles.

Where, then, will these new shared experiences lead us? Here is one example and I am guessing that there are all manner of variants emerging. A day after the earthquake in Haiti, I began seeing updates from a good friend and former business partner. He had loaded his small private airplane in Jackson, Wyoming, left his wife and children and flown to Florida to pick up 6 physicians and transport them to Port-Au-Prince. For the next week, with his more nimble aircraft, he flew missions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti carrying people and supplies as the country struggled to grapple with the extent of the devastation. What was striking to me was that my friend had never shown the slightest inclination toward humanitarian action. Why now? Why this level of engagement? I can't help but believe that as awareness and communication become more personal, we are driven closer to that "activation" moment. He returned profoundly changed. His actions echoed through his news feed reverberating further through people like me who continue to marvel at this empathic transformation. I feel compelled to retell his story.

Technology, however, often presents us with dueling opportunities. On one hand, we can now find community of absolutely like-minded individuals where we can repeat and amplify our own feelings, biases, arguments, and politics. We can tear down, troll, and hate others who see and think differently. The differences have always been there, but with a 24/7 news cycle, blogs, Facebook groups, and Twitter, we see them in stark relief. It is messy. Messy in the way that President Obama recently described the legislative process. We've clamored for transparency and the power to speak and be heard. And now, all the yelling reveals what a daunting task it is to bridge our differences.

On the other, with all this new social technology we can start to put ourselves into the shoes of others. At South by Southwest last year, futurist Bruce Sterling related the transformation of the book industry, where the disruptive force of new media is changing the landscape. His seemingly odd affinity for visiting Austin's most right-wing bookstores drew laughs from the mostly liberal crowd, but his impulse and interest was very real. Niche in media and community is now working its way back into the real world. For Sterling, he feels compelled to bridge that gap; he needs to know how and what and why people think the way they do. Tuning them out is not an option. For all of our cultural advances, we can not yet genetically code our beliefs and pass them on efficiently to new generations. Fortunately, this inefficiency pushes us to question, to innovate, and to grow.

For now, tragedy seems to be the primary means of uncovering our global humanity. Earthquakes, bombings, plane crashes, political unrest, et al. grab our attention. For some, the incipient news cycle delivers an endless stream of "disaster porn" providing entertainment and a diversion from our own problems. For others, technology is enabling participation to reach out and help disaster victims on an escalating scale of commitment (Linking to blog posts, Liking and Retweeting status updates, Texting donations). In a very meaningful way, we are embarking on a transition from awareness to action. As major media sites become increasingly engaged, we will see bold efforts like the Huffington Post's Impact section whose intense focus on personal stories of those in need will eventually transform the regulations around charitable giving to individuals. We will have a real capacity to change the lives of others directly. These new opportunities hold the promise to awaken a global spirit that can transcend divisions.

So, what will it take for our shared human experience to rise to the fore? Have you had a profound (or mundane) experience that caused you to look differently at another person or about yourself? Can high-tech be high-heart?