Times Like These Deserve . . . Empathy

In the bruising, mean-spirited patch we’re in right now, perhaps it was inevitable that a counter-reaction. But for whatever the reason, it seems apparent that the movement on the build right now is . . . empathy.  

But you’ll have to understand where I’m coming from.

Which, specifically, is the NAB show in Las Vegas and the NewFronts in New York. Those events aren’t hotbeds of discussions of emotional response, but surprisingly/significantly, the idea of empathy seemed to be--what?--trending both at the technology convention and at the digital programming/sales event. It’s hard not to connect the dots.

By one succinct definition, “Empathy is what we experience when we feel other people’s pain or joy—it is our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and understand and share what they are feeling."

Not a lot of that is going around, I’d say. In the last year a bunch of shouters and politicians have attacked women, religions, immigrants, refugees and somehow, Black Lives Matter has come to mean that other lives don’t. The reaction to all of that--our empathy--has probably been plentiful, but not so evident. So it just might be there’s a surplus of empathy that could be ready to spill out..

At the NAB Show, I couldn’t have imagined a more unlikely venue to be discussing such a touchy-feely subject, and least of all in two sessions centered around the uses and growth of virtual reality. The VR experience puts you, the viewer, in the middle of the environment. That phrase, “in someone else’s shoes” is perfect.

Activist VR filmmakers at NAB exclaimed that the very intimacy of that experience can create a huge wave of empathy for victims of floods and famine, political persecution, or even the plight of a pig at a slaughterhouse, caught in the recent “iAnimal,” a seven-minute VR film shot by the animal welfare group Animal Equality.

“From our perspective, using VR is the best way to convey to someone what it’s like to be an animal inside a factory farm or a slaughterhouse,” Toni Shephard, the executive director of Animal Equality, told the Website Motherboard. “When we’re filming inside the metal cages where pigs give birth, as it’s at the pig’s eye-level, viewers see the bars next to them. It feels confining and you get a sense of what it’s like to be locked inside one of these crates.”

At NAB, Jason Farkas, executive producer at CNN, said in the business, VR cameras are now dubbed “the empathy machine.”  At another session, Philip Lelyfeld, a virtual and augmented reality expert from the University of Southern California, said VR opens up a new “sense of empathy [with characters], because there’s nothing separating you and the characters. It’s very powerful.”  

In New Zealand, UNICEF showed a VR of Syrian refugees to passersby and greatly upped contributions. “Building empathy, one person at a time,” its post-VR video used as a tagline.

Wrote Louise Jacques on an Australian Website, VR “transmutes the concept of empathy from internal to external. By placing a new set of eyes over your own, physically, and stepping into the world of another, you are kickstarting an emotional transformation. , , You can move your head and eyes along with the image; it’s three-dimensional, totally immersive, and impossible to ignore.”

Of course, a ton of content, fictional and news-based, has strong empathetic roots. But it never seemed to be destined to be part of a content creator's checklist, or possibly, even an advertising tool. 

Though almost all the NewFronts presenters announced VR projects, not many of them seemed intended to be more than video eye candy, which might be missing a real, better use.

Frank Cooper, BuzzFeed’s chief content officer did promise to produce content “with empathy and connection” after a NewFronts session in which it claimed to be a place for outsiders to feel welcomed.

The idea of empathy itself, however, was most emphatically taken up by Refinery 29. Amy Emmerich, the chief content officer, declare the tent poles of the women-centered site are now, officially, “passion, strength and empathy.” One filmmaker, it was promised, "fills the empathy bucket." On the new Refinery 29 comedy channel, Riot, we were told, "empathy is a key ingredient." 

Though most of Refinery 29’s empathy references dealt straight on with content, Emmerich noted that its research shows “90% of purchase decisions are made due to an emotional reaction” and, it would seem, empathetic branded content, could be a good sales tool. To that end, perhaps, Refinery 29 announce, a new initiative it started with the Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab.

It’s called The Empathy Lab.

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