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“Empathy in the Virtual World”, or Why Johnny Can’t Feel What You’re Feeling

In response to G. Anthony Gorry’s “Empathy in the Virtual World”, I wrote the following:

In some respects, I believe our increased use of online communication tools demands that we become not only better writers, but better readers. I skim through hundreds of discussion threads in various contexts weekly, and I’m never a post or two away from the lack of empathy that can make an innocuous original post or comment instantly morph into a virtual and cold mud-slinging competition. I can never imagine things getting so heated in face-to-face or even voice-to-voice discussions because the web has few, if any, cues to indicate tone. We frequently have to read tone into the texts we encounter, an exercise that is itself subjective. Toss in the increasingly global makeup of those joining in the casual conversations (about shared hobbies and interests, about political viewpoints and social/cultural issues), and you have the makings of a mightly large swath of scorched earth if we can’t find a way to understand and empathize with one another.

Looking at it now, it seems more a side note than a response to the essay (and I can’t believe my typos–oy!), but I wanted to at least make note that I said something somewhere about something.

Also, there’s this interest that I have in the whole idea of tone online and how that particular bit of rhetorical earth gets disputed in some quarters–even to the point where to use the word “tone” or imply that someone’s tone is rendering them unapproachable/ineffective is met with derision. I’m speaking, of course, of the discussions surrounding race and related cultural issues in fandom, although I’ve most recently seen a space where some form of the tone argument was emerging in a discussion about vaccines. A friend in another blogging life (because I have others–don’t you?) pointed me to a study in Science that she thought had a relation to the heated discussions about race; you can find a news item here that summarizes the study.

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