Understanding Motive: A Study on Compassion in the Digital Age

Compassion is engrained in human nature and plays a role in everyday life whether it is recognized or not. In the digital age of the twenty-first century, compassion is displayed differently then it was in the past. With the explosion of social media, compassion is shared online and has the possibility to become tainted by the potential desire to gain exposure in the form of followers and likes from it. Examples of this are found in posts made by people in response to different events from around the world. Some examples are the shootings at American schools, Hurricane Maria in 2018, the fires in Australia, and many more. In this essay, I will discuss the impact social media has on one’s ability to feel and show compassion through the discussion and explanation of concepts such as “compassion fatigue” and emotional exhaustion.

“The definition has two components: first, feeling for or with, a feeling of closeness to others (to feel compassion), coupled with a desire to help, a sense of responsibility for another’s welfare (to show compassion).” (Kostanski 2). These components are essential to the production and effect of compassion, however, in her book The Power of Compassion: An Exploration of the Psychology of Compassion in the 21st Century, Kostanski examines what happens when one shows too much compassion. When an action or a feeling is constantly repeated, it loses its meaning or sense of importance, and compassion is no different. When compassion and empathy are thrown around like it takes nothing to give, when in fact, it is emotionally draining to always feel for or with others during troubling times; the emotion becomes stale and loses the vibrancy it once had. “There is a feeling component to compassion and a showing component. We need to keep in balance…if we just show un-discerned action, then there is the possibility of the ineffectiveness of compounding problems…” (Kotanski 3). Social media is a tool that allows people from around the world to connect with each other and share their similarities and differences. This allows compassion between one another, and through social media, it is simple to experience. However, scientists and psychologists alike have reached a consensus that this accessible outlet that makes sharing our compassion and empathy almost effortless, is resulting in “compassion fatigue” and emotional exhaustion. The question many are asking is: is the ability to share our compassion with the click of a button on social media leading to a decrease in compassion in humans? Therefore, is the motive behind the compassion expressed online ingenuine?

The average human is understood to be good at empathizing with those close to them, but according to P.J. Manney in his article “Is Technology Destroying Empathy?”, the act of empathizing with an entire nation does not come easily. Instead, true empathy and compassion are found within close friend groups and between loved ones. In the article, Manney states that “There is also too much information for us to take in. Our brains can’t handle the barrage of emotionally draining stories…” (Manney). This leads to concern about the authenticity of the compassion exhibited on social media, which is seemingly never-ending. This also forces one to look at the purpose of this constant outpour. Is it to raise awareness for these tragedies such as the wreckage Hurricane Maria left behind? Or is there a motive to gain more views and likes and followers by appearing compassionate towards others in times of need. Being the first to post a photo about the carnage of Australia due to the fires would create a lot of buzz around that account, but nonetheless, the coverage also begins a helpful train of charities and donations that originate from that type of publicity. One can argue that even if compassion is partnered with an ulterior motive, the result is more positive then negative for the people and places suffering. Although, the impact on the people who are showing all this compassion and empathy is leading to “compassion fatigue”, thus resulting in ingenuine compassion. Fatigue of empathy could trigger a downward spiral of humans losing their ability to honestly feel and show compassion: “The natural response is to shut down our compassion because we are emotionally exhausted.” (Manney). What is the solution to preserving one’s ability to feel and show real compassion? Deleting social media? Or picking and choosing the crises one puts energy into showing compassion for online and in-person? There does not seem to be a single, satisfying answer to settle on, but that is because like emotions, the idea is complicated.

These articles and books regarding technology and social media in relation to compassion forces one to question why the need to show compassion is so great. It is like the concept of if one does not capture an instance with a picture, it feels like it did not happen. This is a common idea that originated from the explosion of social media and the commonality of showcasing every aspect of one’s life. This relates back to compassion because people believe that if you do not express empathy to a person or place publicly, you are cold and heartless. This is where Kostanski’s statement addressing the need for a balance between feeling and showing compassion resurfaces with importance. Nobody can see the feeling of compassion, which is why people feel obligated to show it so often. With social media, showing has trumped feeling. Of course, posting well wishes for families dealing with lost homes or loved ones is a kind gesture that should not be overlooked, the point of compassion is that one must feel it before it is demonstrated. Otherwise, its true effect and meaning will surrender to emotional exhaustion.

Ultimately, humans should focus on their ability to feel empathy and then showing it when it is most needed. Empathy and compassion make the world work in the beautiful way it can, such as seeing strangers come together online to discuss and assist people and places in need. Articles like Manney’s reminds one that empathizing too much “leads to negotiation or suppression of emotion that destroys empathy.” (Manney). The world would crumble without it, but it seems to also be wavering at the overwhelming waves of compassion that flood society. Social media, I believe, can create or destroy a human’s ability to feel compassion. It is conspicuous that in the wrong hands, social media becomes a weapon. On the other hand, it can be the origin of the unity between humanity; I believe it can act as an outlet for humans to share their thoughts, feelings, and compassion with the rest of the world in a healthy and positive way by focusing on feeling rather than putting on a public show.

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