Wednesday, September 7

Making Friends: Develop Empathy Online

After a relatively slow start, blogs (weblogs) started to gain popularity about 12 years ago. And the more generalized term — social media — came a few years later, incorporating several forms of interactive communication on the Internet. Generally, it includes forums, weblogs, social blogs, micro blogs, podcasts, photographs, videos, and virtually anything else you can find or dream up on the web.

Most communicators understand the tools. But a surprising few understand the connections they create.

And there is probably no greater area of confusion for them than what constitutes a "friend." Even those that have been in the space more than decade stumble over it, attempting to separate the meaning with artificial criteria, as if their definitions can somehow strip away all semblance of empathy.

Some might even argue that followers aren't friends, even if friends might follow. Others remain content to define them by proximity, with "friends" being reserved for those people you actually meet whereas "online friends" are merely slivers of relationships. Yet others manage to create distinctions between those they woo on behalf of their companies and those they don't.

Why marketers continue to struggle with friendship.

I understand the challenge many marketers face, especially those who eventually rack up followings six digits deep or more. It seems unlikely and improbable that all those people are friends. Indeed, they aren't.

But by the same token, maybe they are. Or, if they are not, maybe they could be. Friendship is a relatively loosely defined term. According to some definitions, it is a person attached to another by feelings of affection and personal regard. We can tighten it slightly, requiring it to be mutual for "true friendship," but the standard definition doesn't require it.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been events that have challenged communicators over the term "friendship." One is largely insignificant, but curiously relevant. The other is significant, with a potentially disastrous message despite some deep and well intended thought. (I truly appreciated the effort as well the progression of the latter post.)

I'm going to the avoid the stories behind either, except to say that both touch and don't touch people in remarkably different and profound ways. To me, both fall on either end of the spectrum of what constitutes online friendship and are tied together by how fragile humanity can be.

Individual communication demands empathy and the risk of friendship.

Blogging and social networking to some degree is an art form, I think, in that like music and art, it demands the creator to be equally comfortable speaking with people on a scale of one to one and one to many at the same time. It's undeniably dissimilar to journalism for this reason, which is often confined to a one-to-many medium. (Blogging and networking can be too, but I'm skewing to the nonprofessional majority who know better in this case.)

Any time you communicate with another individual — where there is an exchange of ideas, thoughts, and experiences — there is the risk of friendship. There is a risk of friendship, unless one of the individuals has preset their criteria: That they cannot be friends with someone until they meet other people close to that person, visit their home, or sit face to face. And there is a risk of friendship because our minds do not naturally distinguish the difference between online friends and real life friends unless we force it to do so.

I call it a "risk of friendship" because so many people start blogs and open social media accounts without any foresight that they might finds friends. Some are even dead set against it.

They want an audience, but not necessarily a collection of people that they might become attached to by feelings of affection and personal regard. Or maybe they are employed to make connections on behalf of companies, only to discover accidental connections that go beyond the scope of the work (much like they do in offices every day). Or maybe, well, there are infinite numbers of reasons, motives, and agendas.

Marketers tend to approach social media with reservations against personal connections. It's not all that dissimilar to 7-Eleven clerks ringing up Big Gulps for people. I know, because I did that job while finishing my degree and simultaneously working at an agency years ago. The hundreds of people who breeze in and out of a 7-Eleven aren't all that different from "followers" who carry with them short bursts of communication left at the register.

We smile. We wave. We move on. Well, not everyone.

Friendship doesn't consider proximity, presence, or circumstance.

Unless the clerk has a predisposition against making friends, sooner or later the regulars become familiar. You might talk about the news. You might talk about cultural differences. You might share something personal. You might swap music (cassettes back then). You might stumble into each other at the pub. You might have a meal together. And somewhere along the way, it becomes more difficult to distinguish them from those other people with whom you shared a history with since high school.

Now some people might insist that this plays out differently online. But it really doesn't. I've seen it happen within groups of people who set out to save cancelled television shows. I've seen it happen among professional colleagues. And I've seen it happen between consumers and marketers during a campaign. It happens exactly the same. It's not an illusion.

People become attached to another by feelings of affection and personal regard, even if the other person doesn't know it or expressively conveys the same in return. And it seems to me that it's expressly important for marketers working in social media to understand this as they attract more people than average, and accumulate many more people who perceive them as friends (even if they don't share the sentiment).

Oversimplified, there are two ways to approach friendship online. If you don't have empathy and want to limit who you are open to becoming friends with, you can convey it with a statement or demeanor. You know, just like real life, offline.

Conversely, if you are open to making friends in this space, then just be yourself while making sure every decision you make is checked against your sense of empathy. In other words, never discount someone as a friend just because they are online. Everyone perceives friendship differently, but kids do it better than adults. Give them a few hours around a campfire and someone will find a lifelong friend. They don't see any distinction between online and offline friends either, in case you were wondering. I know. I asked.

The worst thing you could do is play the middle, treating people like friends and then redefining the relationship by your actions no matter how insignificant it might seem to you. People tend to take it personally. And you're surprised when they do; it's a clear indication empathy needs to be a focus. Or maybe it's something else. Fear is a powerful motivator for some people.

Personally, I'm not keen on the alternative being proposed by others. They suggest we assume no one is a friend, especially online. And while there may be some validity in that approach, I think it requires us to sacrifice a little more of our humanity. When no one is "really" a friend, then everyone is lonely.
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