Kindness Outside the Echo Chamber: Practicing Empathy on Social Media

"No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character." - Sam Harris, Free Will

Kindness Outside the Echo Chamber: Practicing Empathy on Social Media

"No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character." - Sam Harris, Free Will

I am a hypocrite. I realize that is an odd way to start an article if I'm trying to convince you to trust me. Maybe it is because I have admitted this, seemingly distasteful, flaw that I will, ultimately, gain your trust. Regardless, I said it and I believe it.

I cannot remember where I heard it, but the following words stuck with me. Perhaps the people who speak the most about a subject are those who are trying to learn more about it themselves. After hearing that, a whole world opened up to me and the idea of learning in public was not so scary. I know that I do not fully embrace everything that I discuss. I discuss it so that I can learn to embrace it more fully. I am a hypocrite until I learn enough that I am no longer one. I am okay with that.

I am also learning that sometimes I am long-winded. So I'll get to my point. I believe we are all hypocrites in certain aspects of our lives. The key is to realize this and try not to willfully embrace the role of the hypocrite. I believe the best way to do this is to face our own ideas carefully and thoughtfully before we respond to others we may not agree with. Those who know me, know that I absolutely do not always do this. I'm willing to try harder though.

Fundamental Attribution Error, Tribalism, and Empathy

When I make a mistake, I tend to think about all the reasons why it happened. When someone else makes a mistake, I tend to think about the person causing the mistake instead of what may have happened to cause the mistake. This, in essence, is the Fundamental Attribution Error. I do it all the time. I am learning not to.

I believe that the Fundamental Attribution Error, in part, can fuel tribalism. Tribalism is defined as a preference for those who look, think, and act like us. At its most insidious, it also causes us to want those who are different from us to be treated badly. Tribalism is also a part of human nature.

An NPR article that I read recently even mentioned that in a University of Toronto study, infants as young as six months old showed a preference in the form of racial bias. Though tribalism is a part of human nature and the Fundamental Attribution Error can make make the effects of tribalism worse by removing empathy when we witness mistakes being made, I believe we can teach ourselves to better understand our fellow humans and "walk in their shoes."

GIFs, and Rapid Response

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a GIF as "a lossless format for image files that supports both animated and static images." I have witnessed, as I suspect most of us have, that a GIF is much more in practice. A single GIF can convey complex responses or ideas in a matter of seconds to the right audience. It is what makes the impulse to use them so seductive.

At work, my team is responsible for creating and managing content for a global event that typically happens in person. Due to COVID, this year, we pivoted to a "follow-the-sun" online format with live sessions for several geographic regions. This meant that many of us were up and monitoring the event at unusual hours. In my small team Slack channel, I replied to a comment with a GIF and this started a barrage of GIFs being exchanged in response. This GIF storm was a meaningful bonding experience and was even labelled as such by one of my teammates. It made us laugh, it woke us up, and it kept us more engaged than we would have been otherwise. It's an exchange that I can't quite wrap my head around, but I know it had an impact. It also cannot be duplicated with traditional words. The meaning is lost. This, I believe, is very powerful in the right context.

GIFs can, just as easily, convey negative messages. Nowhere is this more evident than social media. Facebook, for example, is tribalism codified. Specialty groups, friends lists, and algorithms all work to establish tribes in Facebook for the sole purpose of maintaining audience engagement in order sell targeted ads. Part of that engagement relies on the rapid response to a post or comment when you receive a trigger to respond in your brain. If you are not responding, you are not engaged. If you are not engaged, then you can't view targeted ads. This is no big secret. It's just the way it works.

GIFs are an incredibly efficient and engaging method to respond rapidly online. They require only surface-level thought, they are convenient, and they are typically humorous. This is the part where I remind you that , as previously stated, I am a hypocrite. I often use GIFs in this way.

While great in the example of team bonding that I mentioned earlier, they have turned me, at times, into somewhat of a jerk when I choose to deploy them on Facebook. They are usually sarcastic in nature and a response to something I don't agree with. I often look back later and wish I hadn’t wasted the time to respond at all. Not only is time wasted by responding, time is then wasted responding to any follow up or reactions to my initial response. The quick dopamine hit from a “like” or a disagreement is, often, too much to ignore.

With conspiracy theories and theorists run amok, disinformation, and tribalism at an all time high online, it is tempting to respond rapidly with a GIF. While the frustration with people online is quite real, the need to respond is not always warranted. I think there may be a better way, though it will take some practice.

Slowing Down, Backstories, and Empathy

No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. - Sam Harris, Free Will

In his article "Fundamental Attribution Error: Why You Make Terrible Life Choices," Nir Eyal suggests that in order to alleviate the effect of the Fundamental Attribution Error, it may be beneficial to focus your attention on the circumstances that caused the person to behave in a certain way. In other words, create a backstory. The purpose of the backstory is not to work out an actual reason, but to get you to pause for a moment and think about the person in question as a fellow human with a history and flaws. Even if the explanation may seem implausible, you may think about something relatable. If so, congratulations, you have just taken an imaginary "walk in their shoes" and perhaps even shown some empathy in the process.

I definitely need to practice this. It is a skill that I absolutely think is worth pursuing because it will help me to foster patience in other areas of my life. Another benefit is that it slows my thinking before I respond to a post on Facebook. Just a split second is all that may be needed to stop my brain from sending the impulse to my thumbs to search for a GIF in response to something I have deemed questionable or outright wrong.

A Better Response

I think it is worth exploring whether to respond to a post at all. I know that it is really difficult to resist the temptation to respond. That's all according to plan. Social media and the algorithms that run it are designed to get you to respond. It's fairly insidious. As a realist, I know people will, sometimes, respond. I know that I will respond sometimes. I believe the trick is not to stop the response, but to slow it.

The next time you feel the urge to respond to something you disagree with on Facebook with a GIF (most likely a sarcastic one), bookmark, save, or screenshot the post. You can even have the GIF ready to go and screenshot it as part of your response. Give yourself five minutes to think about why you chose that particular GIF. Ask yourself, what was the message you were trying to convey? Get to the core of it. Maybe even try to package the thought.

If, at the end of the five minutes, you still want to respond, then do so, but do it with the core thought or idea that you have come up with instead of the GIF. Much of the time, you will probably lose interest and not respond. Over time, you may even start to realize that the five minutes you spent thinking about why and how you want to respond is far less time than the time you would have, inevitably, spent on following up on the "likes" and other reactions to your "clever" GIF. That's my hypothesis, anyway.


We are all hypocrites until we are not. Don't let that get in the way of learning. Social media is tribalism on rocket fuel and there is no end to it in sight. We could try to quit social media, cold turkey. It's easier said than done and I know many of us, myself included, won't do it. I know because I have tried.

I believe the best that many of us can do for now is know the rules so that we can break them. If the Facebook algorithms expect a rapid response, don't give them one. Step outside your tribe for a moment, think it through, then respond if you still feel you must. Save the GIFs for team building and laughing with friends.

I know that I will start practicing this today. My hope is that it will help me with empathy, kindness, and thoughtfulness. The next time someone makes a mistake, my first thought might just be "what circumstances led them to do this." I hope that someone will think the same for me when I mess up.

Harley Stagner

I'm an IT professional working in technical marketing. I truly believe that our thoughts are the most unique asset that we can offer to the world. This will be a curated collection of mine.