I recently attended XOXO, an independent art and technology conference in Portland, OR, and came back with ideas on designing more empathetic experiences in the things we create. I’m collecting my thoughts in a series of posts which can be found along with my overall impressions of the event. One of the main themes throughout this year’s XOXO was empathy, specifically how we can be more empathetic as creators and be more responsible when we release the products of our work into the world.

At XOXO Zoe Quinn and Eric Meyer talked about why empathy fails and toxicity in online communities manifests, as well as what we might do to build more empathetic systems.

The Wrong Right Thing

Zoe Quinn is a video game developer, and unfortunately the first target of a sustained campaign of harassment against women involved in gaming or gaming culture, otherwise known as Gamergate. She has since built a network dedicated to helping those who suffer similar abuse online and has spent a tremendous amount of effort understanding why the people who participate in these movements do what they do.

“…most people participating think they’re totally doing the right thing.”
-Zoe Quinn

What she found was that the communities that harassers and abusers participate in perpetuate a cycle of positive feedback for their behavior, which results in continued participation.

The systems in place on websites that are commonly platforms for abuse also enable this behavior. Failing to build in meaningful systems for blocking and filtering is also silent, positive feedback that this behavior is not only possible in this system but that nothing will be done to prevent it.

“We often say the media and the services we build are like roads. Neutral to their uses. That is not true of roads and it should not be accepted of what we create. Because, yes, a ribbon of asphalt is neutral to its uses and to the extent a ribbon of asphalt can be said can be, you know, neutral to anything. But we are not neutral to the uses of that asphalt. We decide where and how a road should be built. Which includes deciding we’ll have access to that road, and who will not.

Just for the process of saying this road will be built here, and not there, that means people there are less able to make use of the road than people who are here. There’s no way around that. The road has to go somewhere. You’re going to build a road. But the act of deciding is still there. And the values, what was valued in the creation of that road is still implicit in its course.”
-Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer, a prolific contributor to CSS and the web in general, talked about his daughter Rebecca’s battle with cancer, her later death, and about the online effort to have her favorite color added to CSS in her honor as “Rebecca Purple” and how it mirrored Gamergate’s formation.

He said “in both cases, you have a situation that already existed and it reached a tipping point with the coining of a hashtag and the boosting of the signal by a prominent personality within a community.”

Meyer pointed out that “we often look at these things and say, the difference here is just the difference in input. You start with negative input, you get negative results. You start with positive input you get positive results. That’s part of the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.

There’s nothing that guarantees that the kind of input you give will be the output you end up with. History is full of examples of people who did the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons.”

Unintended Consequences of Good Intentions

Fitness trackers and apps like TimeHop and Facebook’s Look Back are created with the goal of helping us improve the quality of our lives physically and emotionally. They collect information about us and make an effort to present it in a way that tells us how close we are to achieving a healthy ideal or that helps us be more appreciative of the memories we’ve made in this ever-newer, faster-paced world.

Look Back and fitness trackers are ostensibly built for “right reasons,” but may not be the “right things” to create. Not every memory shared on social media is necessarily pleasant, and not all standards of fitness are free of cultural bias that associate thinness and marathon running with “good health.”

Last year when Facebook rolled out their ‘Look Back’ feature which, like TimeHop, crawled their user’s feeds for memorable moments to compile into a look back at your year, the feature reminded Eric Meyer of the death of his daughter in what he called an act of “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty.”

These feel like easy tricks, deployed without thought, by people who have forgotten how to be vulnerable and empathize with others. As Eric Meyer said on his blog after Facebook’s ‘Look Back’ appeared for him, “The design is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user. It doesn’t take other use cases into account.”

Almost a year later, Facebook is still indifferently doing their ‘Look Back,’ reminding a friend of mine about a near-death experience with a photo of him in the back of an ambulance. The lesson from this very public example of “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” seemingly unlearned.

Thinking about the context of the items that appear when you execute your “one year ago” query is harder than the query itself. Thinking about what fitness looks like to people who are differently abled or how to include those often excluded from or unhealthily motivated by “healthy” ideals is a more difficult than simply counting steps, miles run, or weight lost.

However the effort is worthwhile, because just not doing these things isn’t the solution to “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” and simply banning or blocking those who harass and abuse isn’t the solution to ongoing online harassment either.

We are producing more digital artifacts of our lives than ever before and moving on from them more quickly. Taking a moment to look back and reflect on those moments more often is important and whether or not we should be immediately offloading these moments to external memory is an equally important conversation to have.

There are incredibly positive results from some of these things, and there is hope for meaningful reform among those who are involved in online harassment and abuse.

In interviewing reformed online harassers and abusers about what motivates them, Quinn also asked why they stopped.

She said “every single time, more often than not they expressed someone they were close to, respected, or looked up to said ‘That wasn’t cool.’”

Riot Games is an example of one company taking an in-depth look at what they can do to improve their community and doing the difficult work to analyze the effect the design of their system impacts their players.

The results of their work are stunning.

“TLDR: Meaningful feedback can result in reform rates as high as 70% when the feedback loop is short.”
-Riot Games

Rather than just banning problematic players they’re making efforts to reform people who violate what they have set as the values of their community, and they have found that it is shockingly easy to succeed.

What Riot Games is doing with League of Legends is hard work. The system is easy to modify, but the changes they’re making are measured and refined, by people who are trying to be better.

Not every effort to be more empathetic in what you create requires a sociologist on staff, however. You can make small steps by taking the time to ensure you implement accessibility standards for people who need them.

You can do as Rami Ismail, of Vlambeer and games like Ridiculous Fishing, suggested when expressing his frustration at a multi-million dollar budget video game that had translated the word “HOTEL” to “QNDF”, a gibberish word that isn’t actually Arabic, and send an email to someone who speaks another language to at least make sure the translations you are providing are actually meaningful at best and not offensive at their worst.

He taught us enough Arabic in 15 minutes to be able to see the problem for ourselves, but of the millions spent developing this game not one dollar was spent on making sure that the word “HOTEL” was correctly translated to Arabic. When Riot Games can do the difficult work to build systems of reform into their communities, this is a rightfully angering lack of empathy.

“System design is always social design. The question is, what kind of society do we want to design? What do we want our future to be like? Is it going to be communities who work together? Or camps who tear each other apart? Both are always going to happen. The question is which is the norm?”
-Eric Meyer

The speakers at this year’s XOXO all touched on the topic of empathy and I encourage you, once the videos are available, to watch them all. They talk about how to design with empathy and allow yourself to be vulnerable, but Veronica Belmont best explained the kind of regular effort it takes to be empathetic.

“Empathy is a muscle,” she said.

Remember to exercise that muscle.