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Facebook’s Compassion Research Day

Are you as surprised as I was to realize that December 5 was the 4th Annual Compassion Research Day at Facebook?  Who knew that the social network has been heavily investing in studying and applying Emotional Intelligence to its platform?  For the past four years it has been inviting researchers, scientists, psychologists, and engineers to help design a more compassionate interface for Facebook. Cutting-edge research institutions such as Yale, Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, and Stanford were all on-hand to talk about their work and some recent Facebook inventions.

One idea that came up, but failed to be adopted, was a “sympathy button.”  You know, when someone reports something sad or distressing you want to respond appropriately, and somehow “like,” the only current option, does not work.  Of course, you could take the time to comment or even reach out and call your friend, but this is Facebook, and most people want to just click the mouse.  I think a “sympathy” button would have been a good idea!

During this past year, much of its research and tool development effort has gone into creating ways for young teenagers to feel empowered to give feedback to a peer when they feel they are being bullied or when they are offended by a photo that has been posted.  Facebook discovered that most people will not take the initiative to write a comment in a blank message space, but if they are given tools that give them choices to check off about their feelings they are much more likely to respond.  They are evolving their “reporting” tools to be more like “resolution” tools.

The new bright yellow emoticons we now see on Facebook came out of this compassion research.  They actually derive from Charles Darwin’s 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  Dacher Keltner, of The Greater Good Science Center, commented that the point of the new built-in stickers is "to equip people with more ability to communicate authentically in a place where facial expressions aren't available."  Keltner, who helped design and bring the stickers to Facebook, added that "Facebook is a place where we're teaching each other to become emotionally intelligent." Wow!  That seems like a stretch goal to me, but only time will tell.

As we rely more and more on online worlds, technologists of all types are thinking hard about what you write in those spaces and working on how to engineer more emotional intelligence into all of our exchanges. Moya Watson, an SAP employee and blogger, asks us to consider whether the type of meaningful prompts that Facebook is exploring could potentially show up as online business queries that prompt you as you file a report to consider, "Are those salaries balanced properly for your workers' quality of lives?" "Could you trim carbon emissions in this area?" "Did you really want to think for the short term, or do you want to extrapolate for your children or grandchildren's futures?"  Great questions for all of us to consider now….let’s not delay the implementation of compassion to a future date.

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