Little sympathy for Facebook and its attempt to empathise

The ‘daily average people’ were formerly known as Facebook users

Most Silicon Valley companies are run by geeks. One of the drawbacks of being a geek is that dealing with other human beings tends not to be a strong suit.

Facebook has found a new way of tackling this problem with a dedicated "empathy team", whose job is to go around feeling the pain and pleasure of others and translate the experience for the benefit of its engineers.

The first result of this emotional awakening is that Facebook users are not to be called “users” any more. Henceforth they are to be known as “people”.

In a talk last month, Margaret Gould Stewart, director of product design, explained that those formerly known as users "actually have lives, like, outside the experience they have using your product, and so the first step of designing in a human-centred way is to recognise that they're humans".


Consequently, she said, the company’s internal dashboards that used to track “daily average users” now measure “daily average people”.

This is daft. I am perfectly happy to be called a user by Facebook. I do not feel remotely dehumanised by the label, nor does it make me suspect – as Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, has suggested it might – that they are likening me to someone who takes illegal drugs.

Instead, the word implies that I use its product and sums up the relationship with admirable accuracy. I do not want Facebook taking any interest in my life outside my experience of its product – its tentacles have stretched too far in that direction already. Neither do I quite understand what it means to be “human-centred”, as I’ve never been an alien.

To talk of “daily average people” sounds not just clumsy and weird, but also vaguely insulting as it carries the implication that everyone who uses Facebook is pretty mediocre.

As well as making the company more human-centred, the empathy team has been dispatched to empathise with advertisers. Again, this is very thoughtful, although it misses the spot by a mile.

If I were an advertiser who was cross that all those expensive ads I had placed on Facebook had failed to turn into sales, I would not be at all mollified if an employee pitched up to feel my pain. What I would appreciate instead would be an acknowledgment of a problem and an attempt to fix it sharpish.

When it comes to commercial transactions, there is no role for empathy. Hand- wringing and incontinent displays of emotion from the other side are misplaced, unprofessional and all-round creepy.

Exceptional circumstances

The only proper role for empathy in business is in the office and even then it is needed only in exceptional circumstances. When we are struck by illness, bereavement, divorce or are in periods of miscellaneous emotional upheaval, we may need empathy from our colleagues.

When I have occasionally pitched up at work ravaged by life, a small injection of empathy from a workmate makes me feel not only vastly better, but fonder of my employer. The times when I have received nothing of the sort, I have been left feeling even more miserable – and mutinous too.

The trouble is that most senior business people, not just in Silicon Valley but everywhere on Earth, are shockingly bad at performing such a service. Despite all the studies that claim “authentic” and “emotionally intelligent” leaders – who are supposed to be wellsprings of empathy – perform best, experience suggests otherwise.

I can think of just one chief executive I know quite well who was really empathetic. He had a very big job and kept it for only a very short time. Because he grieved over all the people he fired and demoted, he found it almost impossible to do tough things, was branded weak and indecisive, almost had a nervous breakdown and was eventually given the push.

Given the necessity for toughness at the top, the sensible thing for leaders to do is to outsource empathy to people who are good at it. For a while there was a senior woman who had a box of tissues in her office that was in constant use. She would listen to whatever anguished problem was brought to her, look suitably concerned and then invariably manage to say the right thing – which was often very little.

Grave mistake

Perhaps this is what Facebook is trying to do in having a special empathy team – but it has made another grave mistake in giving it a name. The whole point of empathy is that it is meant to be spontaneous and natural. It is meant to come from the heart. If it is part of your job description, the whole thing is spoilt.

If I were a grumpy advertiser, I would take an even dimmer view of any empathising if it came from a specialised member of an “empathy team”. Empathy by corporate fiat has nothing empathetic about it. It is about the most cynical concoction ever invented. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015