A Canadian artist started a Facebook page for a year-long experiment. Her goal is simple and worthy.
Can Facebook posts enhance our ability to empathize?
Kim Smiley is sharing a photo and a story a day for one year.
The Toronto-based artist, social entrepreneur, and scholar of religions started the project on June 8, 2015. It's an online social experiment she calls The Empathy Effect.
"Each post profiles a subject or object that is transforming the world through acts of empathy — large or small, random or planned, local or global," she said in an interview with Upworthy. "I feel the Internet has become a place of merciless judgment, and I wanted to create a counterforce to the callousness and negativity."
Here are a few stories Smiley has shared that are especially meaningful to her.
Day 5: Smiley tells the story of Matthew Morton, a husband, dad, and doctor suffering from brain cancer.
Morton's prognosis was dim — he was told he had 12, maybe 18 months to live. But seven years later, he was still alive and still working as a physician. And despite his ongoing fight with cancer, he and his wife even made time to have two more kids.
On day 81, Morton was once again the subject of Smiley's project when she learned that he had finally succumbed to cancer. She reposted the photo of Morton and his wife with a heartfelt eulogy.
Day 26: Her subject is veterinarian Faith Banks, who runs a mobile hospice for pets.
This photo is of Banks and her dog Smudge, whose struggle with early dementia inspired her to start the hospice. "After a good life," Banks told Smiley, "a pet deserves a good death."
This story stood out to Smiley because hospice brings to mind almost exclusively human end-of-life scenarios. But Banks reminded her that "empathy is empathy, period," even if it's elicited by an animal.
Day 66: Smiley profiles Jean-Paul Bédard, an athlete and survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
It took 30 years for Bédard to tell someone about his experiences. When he finally opened up to his wife and son, he thought it was because he was buckling under the weight of his secrets. But he later realized he was wrong. "It turns out, I wasn't falling apart," he wrote. "I was falling back together again."
Bédard has since taken up ultra distance running to raise money to help other survivors of sexual abuse. He once ran the Boston Marathon twice in one day and plans to run the Toronto Waterfront Marathon three times in a day to support the cause.
"Life can be unkind and unfair, but it is so much more beautiful when glimmers of empathy punctuate the darkness."
Smiley's hypothesis behind sharing these stories is that empathy is infectious.
She may not be adhering precisely to the scientific method, but that's OK because the proof is in the pudding, as they say. And the pudding here is her audience response.
In just 137 days, Smiley's page has attracted over 65,000 followers, and the social interactions have been nothing but positive. Those are pretty stellar results for a digital campaign being waged by just one person.
When the project wraps in June 2016, she'll award a cash donation of $5,000 to a nonprofit representing the cause that generates the most engagement (measured in Likes and shares). Smiley hopes the gift "transmits a little more empathy into the world" beyond Facebook.
"Life can be unkind and unfair," said Smiley. "But it is so much more beautiful when glimmers of empathy punctuate the darkness."