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So I've had this question forever, but it doesn't seem like I've seen any answers to it as of yet.

We've all seen the trashfires of many social media websites, but my question still stands, is it possible to build an interface in such a way that users feel connected to each other as people, rather than distant from each other? As in the interface helps build empathy towards opposing PoVs, rather than driving people further into niches where they become increasingly isolated from other PoVs?

Most of the discussions I've seen of empathy are about the interface to the user, but I'd also like to see if there are ways to create somewhat like a virtual town hall and a park setting without creating soapboxes in the process that connects users to users and in the process also helps towards vetted information and knowledge?

If so, what would that look like, in theory and what tools of psychology and design could help build such a thing?

I know it's antithetical to how UX is currently done, but I think monetarily and in the outcome it might be better longevity and might reduce things like user burn out and lack of participation.

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    I am glad you've had this question for some time, and also that you have finally decided to ask it on UXSE! We need more questions like this :)
    – Michael Lai
    Oct 15, 2023 at 22:24
  • As an aside, I'm curious why you think UX is not done not for monetary outcomes ("antithetical to how UX is currently done"). We're not artists :-) Oct 26, 2023 at 7:48
  • It's not clear to me if you're asking about designing public online communities of users (as seemingly implied by your comment about creating a "virtual town hall"), or generally about the idea of building productive, pro-social user groups of a different product (even if that—theoretically—means making them private). There's no shortage of academic research into managing and designing around anti-social behaviour in online communities, but I'd love to tailor an answer to your specific question.
    – Kit Grose
    Oct 31, 2023 at 6:58
  • One fundamental question, for instance: how big a community do you need or want to support? Many tools and techniques that work for smaller communities are likely to be inadequate for larger, more heterogeneous groups.
    – Kit Grose
    Oct 31, 2023 at 7:01
  • @TommyPeanuts I agree I'm not an artist, and I do receive money for what I do. Nevertheless, I hope I will find the strength to quit my job when I realized that I was only working for money and with that, damaging society or earth. Foremost, I am a citizen and a dad and I want to do well in both categories. Nov 2, 2023 at 8:51

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There have been a number of systems both experimental and mainstream over the years that have tried to answer this question. One of the most sophisticated attempts in this respect is Slashdot with its system of "karma", thresholds, moderation and meta-moderation as possibly the best attempt so far at collaborative filtering.

At one point in the mid to late 1990's, Slashdot was the biggest and most successful forum of its kind, arguably at least partly due to the way it worked. But the complexity of the system was such that it may also have worked against it in some respects.

Perhaps a more successful attempt at an online space for civil discourse is Metafilter, which has concentrated on (and perhaps simply been lucky to have) fair and balanced moderation. As an attempt to create a non-polarising and empathetic online space, you could do worse than to consider their methods.

Other attempts have focused on issues such as ego. For example, 2Channel, at one point the biggest online forum in the world, enforced complete anonymity on the principle that if nobody knew who you were and there was no ability to build a reputation, you would be more likely to behave better.

In terms of design principles in the abstract, we might assume the main engine of polarisation and lack of empathy in online forums is the near total reliance participants have on written language. This, compounded by people's differing skills in written expression, leads to subtle misunderstandings which makes people tend to react in ways that in person they would probably not consider.

One way of countering this would be to have a forum that relied much more on voice communication (and perhaps also video). This came to pass with Discord and Twitter Spaces, for example. But this has issues with things like gender bias or indexing and discovery.

In the offline world, one of the most interesting examples of a technique that promoted empathy between people who might not otherwise have seen eye to eye was in post apartheid South Africa. Here, the use of "open space" was seen as successful in resolving issues between communities. This was before the online era, but it might provide some clues to better online systems, as might some ideas about human thinking and discourse in general, as reviewed here.

In short, while there are theoretical ways to enforce empathy, nobody has yet been generally successful in implementing them online. The various successes and failures in this area have also been studied by the likes of Clay Shirky and his writings on networks and culture, which are worth considering too. He feels we are (or at least have been) in a golden age of experimentation in the area of human discourse.

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  • Thanks. This helped a lot. I think there are also valid concerns with the other people who answered as well with problems with such a system being too complex? But your input certainly puts room to think. I wonder what an Open space concept would look like online in a virtual thousands of people scenario though. Nov 12, 2023 at 17:03
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I think that many of the principles described in various ethical design frameworks and tools address the type of things that you are talking about. I don't think it is easy to implement, but by removing a lot of the design features that are aimed at monetizing the product, you can already achieve a lot of the effect that you are talking about.

For more information about ethical design frameworks or tools, feel free to look up questions with these keywords, or start with some of these questions:

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One pretty surefire way that comes immediately to mind is to make your product really annoying in some way(s). Then they'll all commiserate with each other, and AFAIK commiseration is a form of empathy.

Yeah, this answer is -- or at least originally was -- facetious...

But the more I think about it, I think I've seen it mentioned somewhere as a seriuos suggestion. Like, pick some minor aspect(s) to screw up your otherwise excellent product, just to get some engagement: Total perfection is bland and boring. (Also kind of reminiscent of the supposed commandment in Muslim and oriental art not to make your work too perfect?)

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