Can Facebook teach us how to be nice again?

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Despite the countless criticisms lobbed at Facebook (s fb) over privacy and the myriad studies lamenting how it’s making us more narcissistic, lonely and generally worse at human interaction, the world’s largest social network might actually help us re-learn how to be nice in an increasingly impersonal world. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to social interactions moving online, but research by Facebook into resolving conflicts that manifest themselves on its platform highlights some interesting methods for reminding people there’s a human being behind that profile pic.

The company recently held its second-annual Compassion Research Day, during which it presented some new methods for users to confront those by whom they perceive they’ve been wronged. A blog post by the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center — with whom Facebook collaborated to develop the new conflict resolution protocol — details what Facebook is doing and what its research uncovered.

Rather than simply give users the option to unfriend, otherwise block contact with, or accuse someone of harassment — all rather impersonal and excessive methods for handling a minor social faux pas — the new tools let users explain why they find a particular post or photo offensive and to request the person who posted it take it down. Users can choose from a selection of casual in tone but specific explanations, or just type something personal like, “Hey, dude, I’m trying to get a job and that post makes me look like a drunk. Can you take it down?”

There are even special options developed for teenage users, who often have different reasons for finding content offensive and need different language than adults to express their concern.

The findings have been overwhelmingly positive. More people are sending messages than under the old system and, more importantly, more of the offending content creators — more than half, actually — are removing the photos in question and actually replying to their friends who sent the messages.

This is a good start toward empowering the subjects of photos and videos to take control over where their likenesses show up, something I’ve lobbied for before.

Does online civility translate into the real world?

Of course, Facebook is likely trying to do more than just play relationship counselor between friends or save users from the effects of embarrassing photos — it’s also trying to curb very real problems such as cyber-bullying. Just like anonymity makes it easier to troll web forums and comment sections looking for fights, the digital nature of social media makes it easier to harass others in ways one might not in the physical world. Absent a meaningful way for a victim to communicate his or her feelings, it’s probably easy for bullies to forget their victims are living, breathing people.

At the very least, the advent of social media seems to have changed bullying into a persistent activity from which kids can’t escape even when they’re at home. Even after Staten Island teen Amanda Cumming committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a bus — reportedly as a result of incessant bullying — her tormentors continued to hurl insults on her Facebook wall as she lay in the hospital.

And although bullying and ostracization have been part of childhood since well before Facebook, social media are part of a perfect storm of dehumanization. If there’s merit to the argument that increasingly violent movies and video games are desensitizing us to violence, there’s probably also merit to the argument that social media are making us less adept at forming strong personal bonds with other people.

There’s a reason that every atrocity such as the one last week in Colorado is followed up with a national discussion over movies and video games and a scouring of suspects’ online accounts for clues as to why they acted out. And even if the killers are often the bullied rather than the bullies, it’s all the same. It’s all part of a cultural shift toward fewer of the interactions that might lead actually lead someone to feel sympathetic.

But there’s no turning back from the digital revolution, so we’d better figure out a way to make it more human so kindness doesn’t become a foreign concept. What Facebook is trying to do probably won’t stop shooting sprees — or even stop generally mean-spirited people from going out of their way to run over turtles — but making people think twice before posting embarrassing content by making it easier to approach them about it is a good start.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Helder Almeida.

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Actually, to rebuke a statement below, fb are not trying to be nice, they never have been (and they are not necessarily evil). Its founders – with all the determination and nous they could muster – have unrelentingly tried to make fb the most accessed, participated in, marketable, consuming service on the web. Their goal is more people, more time, more involvement. It’s society – not fb itself – that is concerned with the social protocols of this digital beast. Fb have continually pushed the boundaries of acceptability and will continue to do so even more intensely now that it is privatized. Their effort to quell the more critica of its audience should not be mistaken for an effort to be nice and to improve humanity – it is simply necessary to address in order to promote it’s goals of more users, more time. Don’t be so naive to think that the plans of Zuck and Co are to dance around in rainbows of niceness. The fact that this articles seems to celebrate their efforts to work tirelessly for the improvement of manners within society (by adding a new dialogue box to their site) only discredits it as some sort of PR gesture – same with the comment below.

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