We Need an Empathy Button to Build Community

Hey, Mark!

I hope you don’t mind the familiar greeting. We’ve never met. I’m not among your 95,351,055 followers on Facebook. The social network you’ve created has changed the definition of familiarity. Good for you.

I’m sure you have entire teams of people devoted to anticipating what’s next — always attempting to stay ahead of the curve of human appetites and their often unarticulated desires. Steve Jobs taught Silicon Valley to give people what they want before they know they want it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has likened Facebook to a cocktail party. Joviality, staged rage and witticisms attract the largest followings. Everybody’s having fun. Nobody doesn’t like a good party — especially if we don’t have to dress up or leave our house.

Only two groups of people can choose to party constantly — college students and billionaires. You somehow managed to move almost without interruption from one group to the other.

You built Facebook for your fellow students at Harvard, so it’s not surprising how the banter we engage on your platform brings back so many of those lunchroom memories. When humorist Dave Barry is accused of being sophomoric, he replies, “I recall having a pretty good time as a sophomore.”

Well and good. We relive our memories together. It’s a fun, good time. But it’s not enough. Real life is not a nonstop party. Life for most of us involves hardship and disappointment. And those are the moments when our social network can do us the most good.

You’ve told those around you that this matters to you. You’ve told your 17,048 employees that Facebook must arrange its collective goals around building a sense of community for its 2 billion regular users. Whether that’s facilitating meet-ups or arranging micro-commerce, community matters most to people when they feel inadequate or insecure.

When a Charlottesville protester loses her life, or a friend loses his job, or our President loses his cool — those are the huffing and puffing moments that remind us of life’s peril. We’ve tried to use Facebook in those moments, but that’s like taking up a collection at a cocktail party. Whatever the cause, it doesn’t feel like the right place and time.

East Coast elites may gather most often at cocktail parties, but we West Coasters congregate most easily around a campfire.

Have you and your young family ever gone camping? It’s something we do a lot here in Oregon, and I can tell you one of the lessons I’ve learned from the experience. When everything is sunny and bright, the campground functions like a collection of independent pods.

But as soon as there’s danger or hardship, the system adapts — sometimes in an instant. It hardly matters what has shocked the system, the response is the same. Strangers band together in a hurry. There’s a bear roaming around for tasty trash! Somebody’s campfire jumped its ring! There’s a downpour coming, or one just left! A young couple’s disagreement turned into a shouting match!

Whatever the cause, it brings together those whose protection from the world is limited to some nylon netting and zippers. When you really stop and think about it, isn’t that most of us, most of the time? We build our security with straw or sticks, hoping to avoid any huffing and puffing that would test its limits.

Our only reliable brick house is one another. Banding together. Strength in numbers. Isn’t that what your platform is meant to offer us?

Adapting Facebook to this deeper need could be amazingly simple. Beside or in place of your ubiquitous “Like” button, give users a button that conveys Empathy — “I feel what you feel.” Isn’t that our deeper need during the non-partying hours of our day?

Add up all the students and billionaires in the world. It’s a lot less than 2 billion people. We want to help and support one another, but we need your help. As long as “Like” is the automatic response we can easily give one another, we’re stuck at the party, worrying about what’s happening at home.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.