Authentic Empathy and Trust

The Kathy Sierra fiasco seems to have reached a nice conclusion. There was plenty of thought-provoking discussion and some personal bridging between the parties involved. Perhaps this will catalyze a higher-level discourse on the Web. Even a microscopic improvement is better than nothing.    (M2X)

I don’t know the parties involved personally, although in this business, you’re two degrees away from everyone. I was also in the middle of work hell when the madness started. Yet somehow, I found myself following the various threads closely. I was especially struck by Lisa Stone‘s analysis (including a mention of BlogHer‘s community guidelines) and Min Jung Kim‘s commentary.    (M2Y)

Empathy, diversity, and humanity are values that are core to me and my business. It’s easy to toss these words around without really thinking about what they mean or, more importantly, without living them. For whatever reason, this particular incident struck a chord and reminded me of several stories, including one that happened a few weeks ago.    (M2Z)

I was having lunch with my friend, Nick, who was describing his short-lived Second Life experience. Nick is a public interest lawyer, but he spent many years in technology, and he’s not naive about these things. However, he doesn’t spend eight hours a day in front of a computer either.    (M30)

A colleague convinced him to try Second Life, so he logged in and started exploring. Almost immediately, someone approached him and handed him a penis. Nick was not amused (then), and he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. That was the end of his Second Life experiment.    (M31)

We both got a good laugh out of the story. However, I couldn’t help wondering how a woman — especially one who had previously experienced sexual assault — would have reacted under the same circumstances, despite the fact that none of this was technically “real.” I know I certainly wouldn’t have been laughing in that situation.    (M32)

Truth is contextual. Is it possible to make misogynistic or racial comments without being a misogynist or a racist? I’m certain the answer is yes, but it’s a tricky line to walk. I’ve laughed at Asian jokes told by some (sometimes even me), and I’ve been miffed by the same jokes told by others. Am I a hypocrite, or is there something truly different about those two situations? The difference is trust. I trust that certain people are not racist, and hence, I tolerate, even laugh at the things they say. But that trust is not universal, and it’s not always mutual.    (M33)

The bottom line is that we need to learn how to walk in each other’s shoes and truly understand and value what people who are different from us feel and experience. It’s easy to be satisfied with our individual levels of tolerance and empathy, but all of us can do better. I’m not advocating a culture of extreme political correctness, either. What I’d like to see is authentic empathy, a greater understanding and appreciation for the worldview of others. With that empathy will come greater trust, and in turn, a much richer society.    (M34)

More on the Price of Openness

I’m a very private person. On the surface, that may be hard to believe, coming from someone who blogs regularly, who has a public Flickr stream, and who interacts regularly with tons of people, most of whom I like. But it’s not news to anyone who knows me. When it comes to my work, I’m very transparent. Again, this blog is a testament to that. When it comes to me personally and the people I care about, I can be as tight as a clam.    (M1Y)

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at walking the boundary, maintaining my privacy without completely walling myself off from others. I’ve lowered the outer walls a bit, and my life is much richer for it. But the walls are still there. It’s my own personal Intimacy Gradient. Frankly, those boundaries are what allow me to live a somewhat public life and stay sane. It’s reminiscent of Wonko The Sane in Douglas Adams‘s So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish. The world really can be an asylum, and it’s important to have a sanctuary from that.    (M1Z)

I don’t self-identify as a blogger. When bloggers express outrage about something, I don’t say to myself, “Ah yes, those are my people.” I have many friends and colleagues who blog, several prominently, but I don’t think of them as bloggers either. I think of them as people I respect and care about. Sometimes, these friends become the center of online idiocy, and in those times, I try to remind them to remember the people and the things that are really important to them. What happens outside of that circle doesn’t matter as much, and it helps to be reminded of that.    (M20)

I don’t know Kathy Sierra personally, but I feel bad about what happened to her, and I wish her the best. It won’t be the last time that something ridiculous like this happens, and next time, it very well may happen to someone I do know, maybe even me. Incidents like these really force you to stop and think.    (M21)

In response to this fiasco, Ross Mayfield made a profound observation:    (M22)

Being open on the web matters. Transparency is good. Society values it more every day and it is the underlying force field of the blogosphere. But it is rare to hear horror stories of being too closed, and frequent for being open. Maybe being too closed makes you unheard to begin with. Maybe it means isolation which is our greatest fear. Maybe it also means corruption when conspired.    (M23)

Last year, I wrote of a far less serious case where people were paying the price of openness. And I concluded that the cost was always worth it in the end, because authenticity will always win. It means a very different thing in this context, but it still applies.    (M24)

Still, openness does not mean without boundaries. When we think of collaboration and collaborative spaces, we must not forget the importance of Intimacy Gradients. This is a good personal lesson as well.    (M25)