Using social media to gauge ‘empathy effect’

The Empathy Effect Facebook cover photo. MELANIE ELFASSY SPRINGER PHOTO

Entrepreneur and artist Kim Smiley said she feels the Internet has become a place of “merciless judgment” and she’s counteracting this with her social media project The Empathy Effect.

Roughly 100 days ago, Smiley, a jewelry designer and former vice-president of donor development for the United Jewish Appeal’s annual campaign in Toronto, launched what is essentially a year-long social experiment designed to elicit empathy from strangers.

Starting June 8, Smiley, who worked in the non-profit sector for 13 years, created a Facebook group for The Empathy Effect, and each morning, except for Shabbat, she posts a black and white photo she believes will inspire empathy – a picture of a person, an animal, a scene from nature or an inanimate object – accompanied by a short, written description.

“It’s a platform to share stories of extraordinary people in the world… Sometimes we get a little cynical… we can become immune to other people’s suffering. The project is about reawakening people to something already within us,” Smiley said.

Most photos are taken by Smiley herself, but some are sourced from the Internet, from the individual whose story she’s sharing or from a member of the person’s family.

By using online analytics tools to keep track of the number of Facebook “likes” and shares each post gets, Smiley is attempting to assess which stories resonate with people.

She’s ultimately seeking to address the more challenging question of whether the project will mobilize followers to become more empathetic in their flesh and blood lives.

“It’s the whole question that underlies the experiment: can we take an online experiment on empathy and transmit it into something living and breathing in this world?” Smiley said.

It’s not clear how this will be achieved, or even gauged, though Smiley said she’s gotten incredible feedback from followers of the group, and suggested that her daily post could contribute to their starting their day on a positive note, “looking around with eyes of empathy instead of being disgruntled and cynical.”

At the end of 365 days, the person profiled in or connected to the photo (even the nature photos typically include some profile of a person) that garners the most online engagement will get to choose a charity to be the recipient of a cash prize, which Smiley said will be a minimum of $5,000.

The money will come from Smiley’s socially minded jewelry business, Sappho by Kim Smiley, which hires and trains marginalized women to make the jewelry at $18 per hour and donates 20 per cent of the proceeds from its trunk shows to charity.

Smiley said she’s seeking other individuals and companies to contribute to The Empathy Effect prize.

On the day of this writing, The Empathy Effect Facebook group had 50,698 members, and Smiley said it’s been interesting to observe which posts “spread virally.”

For example, the most popular post to date was one she put up on Day 5 of the experiment.

It featured Matthew Morton, an obstetrician/ gynecologist at Mount Sinai Hospital who was diagnosed with brain cancer at 32, and told he had 12 to 18 months to live.

Seven years later, on Morton’s 39th birthday, Smiley posted a homage to him, praising the way he and his wife “seize[d] the precious fragility of each day.” After Morton’s diagnosis he completed a medical fellowship, received an award for excellence in residence education and had two more children. 

Analytics showed Smiley that more than 75,000 people saw the post, 1,709 people liked it and 270 shared it.

Two months later, Morton died.

A more recent post featured a tribute to neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, emphasizing his unique dignity and humanity.

While Smiley creates and writes most of the site’s content based on things that catch her eye or inspire her, she’s also hoping to cultivate what she calls a “confederacy of dreamers,” a global network of people who will contribute written posts to the page or submit photographs to accompany posts.

“I want to show empathy on a global scale, not just through a local lens,” she said.

She emphasized that she didn’t initiate the project out of a belief that there’s an “empathy deficit” in the world.

Rather, she feels that people can sometimes use a reminder to bring their awareness back to caring about the lives and the suffering of others.

“We’re often bombarded with such negative news, with people’s lack of compassion. I want to create a counterforce to that,” she said.