Empathy Machine

A hopefully kinder internet to come.

I think about Reggie’s essay about CosPlay more than I care to admit. I interpreted it as the “The Promise of The Internet”, a costume available to all who wish to wear one. A kid with a humble DSL connection could be on a Toontown forum at 10 years old (violating COPPA regulations) interacting with German users sharing fan-made strategy guides hosted from a mirror site with a .de TLD. Afterwards, I spent days playing WarRock because I couldn’t afford a copy of Battlefield 2 becoming intimately aware of the monetization models from Korean game publishers and developers. A brutal lesson delivered when a player with “Mom’s credit card” proved that point in Team Deathmatch. A little later, that same kid was paid in Bitcoin while roleplaying as an HR manager on EVE Online with Slavic and Scandinavian guild mates. I learned about the price discrepancies of the cost of a Big Mac in Sweden while on a Ventrilo server while mining some in-game asteroids. Even in moments of harassment, I could get yelled at in my second-tongue being called an “hijo puta“ by Dota 2 players in Peru making the most of their game cafe time.

For as much is as said about the negatives of technology, of which I am unfortunately acutely aware of, I was immersed in the happenings of the world because the people who I spent my time online with were kind enough to indulge in my curiosity about the lives they were living. In return, I grew empathetic to the struggles of people all across the world. Although we may no longer be online in the same places, I carry those experiences serving as a guide as I navigate my own life. I am ever grateful to those who shared glimpses of theirs with me.

The multiplayer online escapades I used to embark on are mostly over. In contrast, I have spent more time grieving with those who I have met online. From saying goodbye together or joining the lamentations extending from harm to a community- I feel that we are reaching the limits of what our humble text boxes can offer. I guess I am writing this piece to make sense of those actions I partake in nearly everyday.

To Know an Avatar

I don’t know what it truly means to know someone on the Internet. We have any number of verbs that describe behavior between two or more individuals. One can lurk, follow, engage, like, DM, all the way to its most unsavory verbs such as “flame“. Our behavior towards others changes on how we perceive other users, sometimes tied to class, race, in-group, affinities. (Professor Lisa Nakamura’s work on the issue of cultural presentation in her work “Digitizing Race” covers this phenomena) Despite those presentational elements, where users of whom hide or display traits at will, there’s a form of role-play involved.

What does it mean to play around with the expectations of emotion when I purposefully “angry react” to content I find funny. Is it protest? Is it subversion? Is it irony? Would I ever make a funny face at a comedian in person to throw them off their balance? How about to a trusted friend when they are telling me a secret? When I talk about feeds and products, I try my best to grasp at parallels and anagrams that loosely fit. The companies who make these products struggle to as well.

Google+ attempted to address the implications of a multifaceted online identity within different social groups with a feature called Circles. The disastrous launch of that product aside- users relied on concrete identity walls to communicate differently. Who I was on Tumblr wasn’t the person who I was on Facebook, for many that was also the case. Time after time, some story would run about a “functioning member of society” who would display seemingly disconnected behavior that would mostly disappoint that person’s friends in meat-space. In some cases that’s by design, an Xbox Live lobby disbands after a match. A Your Mom joke may likely go unpunished in that space. In contrast, a community ran dedicated server where members know each other might have a different dynamic. Naively, the belief was that if we deanonymized the avatars we had- we would behave with dignity and respect.

As we collectively aged on the internet, I noticed the tone of the meta discourse on the internet shift. From the peaks of hope that was the Arab Spring or the Euromaidan, there was a feeling that the interconnectivity of the world would allow those to hold power accountable and then the global community can truly understand each other to a usher a new age of peace. Something like that. Over time as we made improvements in communication technology, we went from the concept of a terminal that led you into this novel portal, to carrying our digital selves around us with our phones.

The implications aren’t felt and understood a few years out until there is greater understanding of the technology. I think even today, we will continue to try to make sense of the implications we face as a result of it. Despite the ways we choose to present ourself to others, I think there is something to be said about how we interpret that digital space.

Aggression via TCP/IP

As of 2020, Facebook had 2.7 Billion monthly active users worldwide. For some people in certain countries, Facebook *is* the internet. It also maintains a “real” name policy that encourages a face tied to a name. It’s trust and safety contractors and I can attest that despite that policy, abuse is as rife as any platform or forum you may find yourself on. Ask any non-Male presenting user, they will tell you stories of unwanted advances, fear inducing behaviors from other users, and other countless unsavory actions.

The internet and the platforms that we live on decreased the mental perception of distance we experience when communicating to one another. It’s fantastic, the potential of communication that we hold, only on the internet you can have someone like younginvestor2 get the exposure to top investing minds, or how a young adult in Northern Georgia become one of the biggest pop stars.

The internet has challenged traditional norms around the margins of producing information, other things haven’t scaled with it, attention, identity, and perception of humanity. Interacting with someone in the real world and acknowledging their emotions and motives is already difficult in meat space. When you abstract a person’s being to a profile picture and text, it’s easier to dehumanize and say things you might not have otherwise said. Although it’s not a panacea, and violent behavior is rife in person- saying something uncharitable is understandably easier in a text box. It’s why I find it interesting when people can say rather demeaning things online but when confronted in person, tend to walk back.

I don’t know what the answer is to the relentless streams of hostility that spews at the direction of some people. To those undergoing a ‘witch hunt’, having your phone ring off the hook with hateful comments is an emotion not well understood by many. Many respond with: ‘just log off’ or the ever relevant Tyler, The Creator tweet. However, not many understand what it means to put yourself online, especially for pay, where that increasingly isn’t an option.

Proximity of Gardens

Some of us serve as gardeners of content, preferring to cultivate what we see and produce to others. However, despite relentless curation, weeds may pop up. A stray notification or coordinated campaign may trigger a rush of unwarranted feelings. As such, the emotion to screen pipeline is ever shorter. Outrage turns to grief turns into a stream of inside jokes and topics as we go from unified to fragmented in a shifting set of conversational and identity allegiances. It’s the closest thing to vertigo on the internet.

Arron Z. Lewis describes these feed clusters as gardens as well. As people fork and interpret memes… he observes is a desynchronization of time between cultures, allowing people to live in imagined realities of their choosing. However, I don’t think that effect is as pronounced as claimed, although I agree people like to find and inhabit a cluster- these universes are in fact closer than we like to admit. Its partially the reason why music listening audiences are drawn to the breakdown of genre, so much so that it’s a focus of some music studies. It’s all coming from the same source more often than not. End of the day, the distance of Catholic twitter to Bitcoin twitter is still one click. Rather the focus on topics eschews the operators who inhabit these spaces with whatever mask they choose to present. With that said, its always a short walk from any topic in Wikipedia to Hitler.

At its worst, this is where brigades find threads to reply to in a crude form of information warfare. Twitter specific terminology such as ‘ratioing’ happens as a way for users to express dissatisfaction. E-commmerce platforms aren’t immune to this behavior, review bombing occurs as a way to express discontent in a world where users are mere information sharecroppers under a platform’s watchful eye.

One can see the format being a contributor, specifically, the way how users are treated. Platforms operate in a pseudo-state like fashion, and although I understand the willingness to limit legal liability but I don’t expect people to behave well if the systems used to judge don’t behave with empathy. A great example is the arbitrary YouTube copyright strike system that puts a creator’s small business at stake. In the end, all one can do is yell from an alt. If one is expected to be subject to any and all arbitrary rules, there isn’t much incentive to be kind to one another.


I have been struggling to make sense on how the modern information cycle affects us. What happens across the world is news everywhere. On one hand, one can see the firehose of the internet as an overwhelming force, overcoming us as we be become desensitized to tragedy.

From one event to the next, we briefly see the same event through different lens. In towns and cities, such like websites we spend time on, we have members who extol their outsized influence to guide the town through traumatic events. It could be elected officials, religious leaders, and trusted community members. Nikita conveys this point better than I can.

With that said: there is somewhat of an anti-pattern nowadays. Users are incentivized to be as inflammatory as possible to get attention. That attention can be converted for whatever aim they chose.

As technologists tried to understand the phenomena of information especially during elections, one common opinion was to “burst” the echo chamber by showing more oppositional content. There was a study that mentioned that showing oppositional views only hardens those who hold those views. I don’t think that would be effective at all if I fail to understand the person behind the screen. As such, the products we use resemble fun house mirrors as they try their best to guess what we want. Users may trust it less if I am not even aware on how the feed works.

In those moments of calamity- the moments that gave me hope are when we can comfort people miles across. There lies potential that we can move off the beaten path and engage thoughtfully with the strangers we pass online.

I wonder what an internet that fosters this connection would look like. Steem.it attempted to financialize the image-board via a ledger, but it doesn’t feel remarkably warmer or enjoyable to spend time in. Imzy attempted to construct a friendlier alternative to Reddit but was unable to reach the scale that made those types of sites profitable.

I feel like the future of online interaction isn’t the wave of community monetization that is spreading around in the tech zeitgeist. Those are just monetized audience protocols where creators are selling their time and energy to me or others. Although I am happy that people can make a better living off of what they do online- it still feels just as inhuman, most creators work 60+ hour weeks, being a writer, editor, designer, and all around multi-hyphenate where in most cases their efforts are largely ignored. Discord groups and other communities have a moderation issue, where on the backs of hours of unpaid labor from admins and moderators, an island is built.

Rather- I see internet spaces resembling the gathering places like the riconcito cafe I grew up next to, where the food was subpar but the conversation was lively. Where maybe the Eternal September is not seen as a derisive point in internet history but rather a point where we found more new friends.

One of the novel revolutions of the For You Page that Musical.ly pioneered was the assumption that talent was everywhere, and people would want to watch content that was good even if you didn’t know about the creator… yet. Post-TikTok, what excites me about Dispo and newer forms of social media is that for once, the user is seen as a stakeholder not to min/max.

The choice of who we hang out with is now less driven by serendipity and more around deliberate matchmaking on a variety of factors. I think this is a significant driver of the hate loops that we see. The internet I described growing up in hasn't departed but harder to partake in healthily. What I want is… networks where I can tell my friends that I am not present at the moment. Ones where I know that someone is receptive to a random call to catch up. One where checking one’s inbox isn’t something that inspires fear and trepidation. …Where expressing vulnerability doesn’t open up people to extensive harassment. I remain cautiously optimistic, that we design tender systems that help us become the best versions of ourselves.

The personal anecdote that I shared at the start of this essay can be interpreted in many ways. The point I wanted to share is, from your text box, there is someone at the other end who could be understood. The services we use haven’t fully explored extending the capacity for understanding other users as much as they could. Maybe the experiences I had growing up are more unique than I care to admit. However, someone somewhere can introduce you to a life you have not yet experienced and you may be all the better for it. I hope these ideals remain.

It’s a rough world out there, let’s remind ourselves to be kind and charitable to one another.