Feedback Systems and Empathy

Day 12 of #100DaysToOffload

The second sentence of this is more or less how I view everything I do, both professionally and personally.

What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?

From Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, p. 72

He's talking there about feedback systems and the shortcomings of social media, where feedback is a narrow band of liking, favorite-ing, and other upvoting or, algorithmically, some sort of metric for tweet impressions and influence. For various reasons I've been thinking about feedback systems, and particularly about what might useful in a feedback system. I have a specific technical problem to solve — or, rather, a specific design decision to make — but it has implications more generally for how I build feedback into some software. I don't want to reproduce the worst aspects of social media, though that tends to be the default in this kind of thing. So I find myself circling around notions of what a more humanistic feedback system might look like.

Add to the mix this quick bit from Micro Matt on commenting platforms and so-called “social” space requiring context. That feels related, as comment sections on blogs are often a form of feedback or judgement online (perhaps as much or moreso than they are what they should be, means of discussion and exploration and connection). I would make the case that the bird site is really just one giant comments platform, supercharged and definitional for the current anemic sense of “social” in online social spaces. I sense that Matt is wrestling with similar sorts of issues — how to make a humanizing system of feedback and discussion.

The issue of context is key. Part of what makes social interactions make sense is that we can understand where people are coming from, adjust imperceptibly to their discourse cues, clarify where needed, deploy laughter or gesture or a glance to reinforce intent. So much context online must be communicated either explicitly with text or in a static form, if it gets communicated at all; in the case of social media, everything is rehashed and remixed, reduced to binary likes or quantifications that serve as proxy for value and influence. Lanier singles out lack of context as a key problem of social media feedback. You don't know why someone said something or in what context; you can't change or adjust for audience in the same ways as you might when speaking to a person or group directly; after-the-fact reinterpretation by those with an agenda for your words is the default. (He doesn't mention Plato's Phaedrus, but of course Plato makes a similar case about writing in general at his particular technological moment, namely that writing is fatherless and unable to defend itself. It is, in effect, at the mercy of readers. That we see things differently nowadays is testament to a couple of thousand years of changing literacy practices but also a reminder that the current configuration of habits around online media are anything but fixed.) Lanier's point is in part that we're not in the same space on social media, but also that the forms of feedback, deprived of context, rob us of room for empathy.

What is missing from feedback systems is often that sense of empathy. I don't know if there's a way to build for it or build towards it, though I suspect that is in part what Matt is getting at with the idea of comments for as an environment. It is also why I know that I prefer Lanier's notion of “reaching deeply a small number of people”; I can't really bring myself to care about twitter metrics because they are false, inauthentic, deeply problematic, and not a way in which I can engage in the kind of empathetic dialogue with others. That kind of discourse can't happen with the sword of judgement and measurement monitoring things. It can't happen with constant surveillance. It can't happen with the threat that someone can take words out of context and use them for their own ends; and it can't happen if personal interests are subordinated to the advertising needs of private companies (to echo Lanier's larger points about social media).

Empathy requires forgiveness and forgiveness requires forgetting.

I have no idea (yet) how to build that into a feedback system or into software. But I think that would be a great thing.