April 2, 2014

Can technology make the world more empathetic?

The man across from me waved his hand. “Excuse me,” he said for a second time. I looked up, removing my headphones.

“Yes?” I replied.

Sitting behind his laptop, the man asked, “What’s the WiFi password?”

“Oh, yeah! It’s ‘@capitalone360sf’” I gladly responded.

After he thanked me, we briefly bantered about the cafe’s terrible but cheap coffee and then reaffixed our eyes to our laptops. I put my headphones back on.

That Warm Fuzzy Feeling

My brief exchange with the fellow coffee shop camper made me smile. We all know that feeling.

That moment when you pause a few more seconds to hold the door open for an elderly woman.

That moment when you recover a dropped notebook from the overwhelmed clutches of a passerby.

That moment when you point tourists in the right direction.

These small signs of respect and appreciation may not be significant on their own but compounded over time, they can make the world a better place.

So how can we encourage more of these empathetic world? Can technology help?

Empathy in Technology

Can technology elicit these feelings of connectedness same feelings as the human interactions described above? Technology may appear soulless and impersonal on its silicon exterior but it has remarkable ability to elicit empathy and bring people together.


HandUp puts a face behind homelessness and charitable giving. Donors give money to specific individuals in need. Aaron needs dentures. Beth needs a winter coat. Chester needs money for school.


Anonymous secret-sharing app, Secret, contains lewd, offensive, and hateful content. But so do Facebook, forums, websites, and middle school hallways. Anything that empowers ideas and thoughts to spread (which is generally a great thing), will contain both love and hate.

Secret is a vehicle for empathy, empowering people to share things they’re too scared to expose elsewhere (like the image shared above).


Even products like Snapchat encourage more frequent, intimate communication with remote friends and family. Its photo-centric focus embodies more emotion and context than traditional text messaging which fails to translate the subtleties of face-to-face communication.


The question-and-answer app, Jelly, set out to make the world more empathetic. In an interview Jelly co-founder Biz Stone, shared the motivation behind the new venture:

Beyond being a very useful search engine, like I said before, it creates this circle of empathy, where people realize that “Oh, there’s other people who need my help and I can actually help them and they’ll feel good about it and they’ll get trained to thinking about helping other people. And, maybe that’ll even jump outside of the app and just into the real world and they’ll start looking around and helping people and wouldn’t that be great?

I’m cheering for you, Biz, and other entrepreneurs that use technology to make the world more empathic.

Empathy as a Strategy

Jelly has a long way to go to achieve its altruistic vision. While skeptics may discount Biz’s motivations as just marketing (and good marketing it is), the empathy he hopes to encourage isn’t entirely selfless.

Studies have shown that people are happier when giving gifts to others than when they make a purchase for themselves. Answers on Jelly are gifts, a token of attention given to another individual that may actually benefit the answerer more than the questioner.

Empathy is a core part of what makes Jelly and other empathy-inducing products compelling. We have an inherent desire to feel socially accepted. Millions of people use photo-sharing apps, play games, tweet, and blog for this feeling. Although these products may appear like distractions, they bring us closer together.

If you’re building a product, consider how you can evoke empathy to build a more compelling experience and make a positive change in the world.

Thoughts? Share them with me on Twitter (@rrhoover).

More Writing by Ryan