Four Ways to Improve Our Online Emotional Intelligence

As human beings, we’re born with a built-in ability to make sense of very subtle social signals from other people. We effortlessly read their pheromones, their body language, their tone of voice and their facial expressions.

So it is one of the great tragedies of modern life that this amazing emotional intelligence gets so short-circuited when we’re online. In email and on the web, it’s hard to read what we’re really feeling – almost like we’re all walking around with paper bags over our heads.

Adapting Our Emotional Intelligence

Is it possible for hearts to touch from a distance? Absolutely. Talking with someone over the phone can be an important way to renew a bond or just stay in touch. But, as our layers of technology strip away more and more of the rich signals we get from being in each other’s presence, we need to compensate by other means. We use smiley faces 😉 to help us convey a joke or to soften a statement that might otherwise come across as overly harsh.

The  human heart is very adaptable when it comes to expressing what it feels. When wonderfully revolutionary technologies like the Internet come along, we just need to make sure that our tools help us retain its ability to help us understand the nuanced social signals that surround us. Our software needs to keep our emotional intelligence intact.

Augmented Emotional Intelligence

Building relationships takes work. That’s just as true online as it is in the real world. We can’t expect software, by itself, to give us emotional intelligence. There is obviously some responsibility and skill that’s required on the part of the user. With that said, however, there are some concrete things that software can do to maintain our online emotional intelligence.

    • Grooming: We all like to feel noticed and recognized. Facebook’s “Like” button was a brilliant innovation for doing just that with very minimal effort. While there are risks in over using social grooming tools and it’s important to use them in meaningful ways that don’t cheapen our feedback, I believe we benefit enormously from using them generously.
    • Touching: Nothing strengthens relationships more reliably than checking in with others on matters that are personally important to them. It might be a loss they’ve experienced, a difficult problem they’re facing, or some important accomplishment they’ve made. Today’s tools largely fail us here. We lack good tools for tracking important information about the important people in our lives; tools to remind and prompt us to follow up with them and let them know we care – almost like a personal Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database. Birthday reminders in Facebook are one example where a service is getting this right today.
    • Sharing: Useless facts and figures do nothing to build a relationship, but when someone shares information with us about something that truly is personally or professionally important to us, well, that little gift can go a very long way. We need better tools for helping us track other people’s interests and tagging the information we run across on the web in ways that make it easy to share it with those most interested in it. Think or Diigo bookmarks combined with a personal CRM with your friends’ most important topic tags.
    • Appreciating: What matters to me may not matter to you. When we share with, touch and groom others online, it would be helpful to know what means the most to them. We need some simple but meaningful feedback mechanisms to help us express, and even quantify, our appreciation. We need to be thoughtful with this one, of course. An easy-to-use systems for allocating some sort of “gratitude points” just might work, but the points mustn’t translate into something with tangible value, or we risk commercializing (and cheapening) our appreciation.

Facebook Props

I am an occasional critic of Facebook due to its lock on our social graph, but it’s important to give credit where it’s due. Facebook is head and shoulders better than any of its competitors when it comes to promoting online emotional intelligence. The company has put in place a compelling, and deceptively simple, set of features to help us tackle each of the above requirements with varying levels of success.

Let me know if you see additional categories beyond those I’ve listed above or have additional thoughts on other services that you think are excelling in these areas.

We Need Software Anthropologists

My point in writing this post is that, as good as Facebook is, we need to do much better at using software to regain some of the amazing emotional intelligence that we’ve left behind in our migration to our new online home.

To do that, we need a whole new field of practitioners to join in the software development process. We need anthropologists – applied anthropologists – trained and observant in how people actually relate to one another. Just as graphic designers and then writers and editors became necessary with the advent of the graphical user interface and then web publishing, the growth of social networks now requires new expertise to further soften the hard edges of our software. Think of it as anthropology meets user experience.

Getting this right will elevate our software to new heights, heights that honor and cherish the underlying humanity trying to connect through the ones and zeros of our code.

Without that, we really are just wearing paper bags on our heads.





  1. I think we really need something like Human Interoperability (you might want to have a look at: Human Interoperability was quite a normal thing to ‘live’ in traditional society… When we started computing, we didn’t realise ourselves the crucial importance of context. Unfortunately computer-people still don’t… We’re still stuck with text, text, text and another text – without accompanying contexts. Do we need contextual computing? Do we need contextual organisation of information combined with (familiar ways of) computing?

    • I’ve become increasingly convinced that one of the next important waves of computing (note the “one of” part – since I think several new waves are coinciding) – will be contextual computing. I’ve got a really interesting idea for a new user interface for mobile computing that I’ve just had a difficult time finding the time to write up. It’s all based on the notion of contextual computing, however.

      In the meantime, I tried reaching your slides Jan, but the link appears to be broken. Could you repost?

      • And the link is…
        Otherwise try to google with “slideshare human interoperability” – That’l bring you there as well.
        That presentation is about a the need for a new… a contextual organisation of information in order to be able to convey the intended meaning of a sender as good as possible to a receiver – especially when using information technology.