Thursday, 12 April 2012


In my previous post (here) I've discussed my slow retreat and reproach to the internet. While I've already begun distancing myself from social networks, reducing my output there steadily, new revelations regarding the flow of information have come to mind.

Recently,  a re-curing theme has appeared in my thoughts and surrounding: Empathy. I've been re-reading the magnificent Hyperion books by Dan Simmons, and one of the central themes in them is empathy. My sister Majda is doing some photography art that deals with empathy. And the internet itself, and my retreat from it, has made me think about what role empathy has when applied to internet content.

This has all lead me to conclude that any form of content being spread viraly, be it on the internet or beyond, has some sort of value. The question remains to what extent is this value for the reader.

Allow me to explain. You see a post online about somebodies dog dying. You think, hey, my dog died - I know how that feels. You click like, or share, or whatever. In this case the only reason you spread, or support this information is because of empathy.

This is the same reason why observational comedy works so well in stand up. You like it because you can identify with it. Lets call it the "Hey, I know this!" syndrome.

Lets apply this to social networking. A while back I wrote a tweet that was specifically designed to test out this idea: that content is judged on how well it can relate to you, not on its actual meaning. The tweet was about a very personal event that is individual, and related to a specific person - something that only I and that person would find meaning and value for. However, it was phrased ambiguously - it could be about anyone.

Needless to say, it was re tweeted and commented upon, with people behaving like it was their own experience, and even giving advice on how to cope with the feeling. They were taking a situation that is clearly individual and applying it to their own case. They were giving it meaning where there was none (for them), clearly seeing themselves in the events described.

This phenomenon is far older than the internet - think of the horoscope. The art of reading someones horoscope is consisted of bombarding the person with statements that are general, ambiguous and above all - emphatic. You give someone a very broad koan on love and they will find themselves in it. Any human emotion - we all feel it, and we want to find ourselves in them (A demonstration of this was performed by Derren Brown in this experiment) This is why non-concrete song lyrics work best - its not talking about this guy's break up, its talking about YOU, etc.

So why this long explanation about peoples need to empathize with content? Because it is critical to evaluating the true value of information. Think about it: if the only reason you are spreading information is because you can recognize yourself in it, then maybe that information has no value?

Or maybe it does, but it needs additional features to make it worth spreading. One of the reasons I like internet memes and 9gag so much was because they make me laugh, but also because some of them describe something I can empathize with. A rage-face comic about bashing your little toe to the leg of a chair - thats not so funny, but I can instantly identify with the situation. Its empathic content devoid of any true significance other than "Hey, I know this!". Paradoxically, this is also why I am hesitant to indulge in 9gag and memes - they bring no use, no true content, no significance to my life other than short-term entertainment.

A discussion with a friend led me to thinking about what qualifies as indulgence online and what is actual content, and we decided that articles provide information and value, while memes tend not to. This form of classification should be more concrete. If one had to phrase it:

If the content examined only serves to give you brief entertainment or moments of empathy it has no informational value. Therefore one should refrain from spreading it, or at least spending large quantities of time on it.

This kind of thinking might seem spartan to some, not to mention the fact some might remark I should be the last person to be saying anything about "spamming on the internet". But I think my days of procrastinating and spreading every bit of meaningless info give me qualification to now speak of it, and to stop doing it.

In the end, it is a question of content. What do you gain from the content you consume every day. If it is nothing but a laugh and some empathy, the content is trivial. If it is information, inspiration - if you learn something - then the content is worth spreading.

I implore the 5 people reading this to spread it if they agree with it, and if they believe it informative for others in any way. If upon reading this you thought, "Hey, I know this" -  then maybe better leave it at a casual Facebook like.

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