Are We Soft-Wired for Social Media? A Perspective on Empathetic Civilization

I just love the TED web site. They post some of the most interesting discussions by some of the most controversial thinkers of the 21st century. I recently saw this animated video of a talk by Jeremy Rifkin given before the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on Empathetic Civilization, and it made me start thinking about human empathy and its impact on social media. If Rifkin is right and we are soft-wired for empathy, then it explains a lot about the success of social media.

If you have read this blog in the past, you know that I have posted about the tribal nature of social media, and even about the impact of brain chemistry on our inherent need to connect with others. Rifkin calls mankind homo empathicus, because our need to empathize and connect with other creatures is soft-wired into our brains.

As Rifkin explains it, as individuals mature they develop greater empathy for their fellow creatures. Babies cry because they hear other babies crying. Children develop a sense of individuality or self around age 2, which is when their empathetic development really begins and they can start to understand how they relate as individuals to other individuals. Around age 8, children come to grips with the concept of mortality, life and death, and they start to understand that all creatures on earth are following the same mortal path, which broadens their sense of empathy even further to encompass other creatures, not just other people.

According to Rifkin, an empathetic civilization is not utopian but rather is powered by suffering and a solidarity from understanding of our own mortality. And the tribalism of this empathy civilization expands with man’s experience. Early man could only carry empathy to his immediate circle – the blood ties of those within shouting distance. As man’s world expanded, the concept of blood ties expanded as well, promoting a sense of tribal empathy because of your religion, your country, etc. With today’s technology, we can experience a sense of worldwide connectedness or the global tribe.

Which brings me to social media. Rifkin’s premise is that man’s empathetic nature is not only soft-wired, but basically benevolent. Rather than being driven by self-interest and greed, man’s inherent sense of empathy makes him want to aid his fellow creatures. This is what fuels the sense of tribalism that makes social media so successful. Social media is promoting an online empathetic civilization of sorts, where people are connecting on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media looking for like-minded people to become part of a shared experience. That same soft-wired empathy also offers an explanation of why those who violate the trust of the tribe are doomed to fail. If you pervert the social media trust by aggressively selling your next webinar or your newest product, the tribe will eventually shun you because you violated the unwritten rules. How many of you have “de-friended” or “un-followed” those who do nothing more than cry”buy my stuff!”?

So it seems homo empathicus is predisposed to gravitate toward social media, since we are all looking to connect to a larger world and expand our own sense of tribal connection.

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