Can Online Video Usher In A New Age Of Empathy?

The power of the moving image to bring people together is having a global effect that’s never been seen before. Now that we all have access to the same media, can it connect us more strongly?

Can Online Video Usher In A New Age Of Empathy?

Almost 100 years have passed since the first regularly scheduled international flight. It’s been 85 years since the first international telephone call, and more than 30 years since the United Nations standardized passports. While these advances served to connect countries to one another, they have struggled to produce a true sense of global citizenship. To me, global citizenship means identifying with one another as people with a common experience before subdividing by other factors like nationality, religion, or political beliefs. What will finally create empathy and understanding between a young man in Tokyo, a middle-aged woman in Dallas, and a teenager in Sao Paulo? Not politics. Not religion. But media.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

Online media is effectively creating a global living room by transforming how people across distances can share an experience. Video especially can pack a powerful punch of humanity. It can convey sights, sounds, and emotions in a different way than written word, audio, or other mediums. And web video is allowing anyone with an Internet connection to share a moment together, whether it is a Bollywood film, a Lady Gaga song, or a small glimpse into someone’s life. It allows us to identify via our interests rather than just our demographic. As media moves from being created and shared regionally to more open, international platforms, empathy and understanding follow. What informs this hypothesis? Good, old-fashioned mail.

Originally the United States postal system was inhibited by regions. It charged for delivery based on “distance from origin”–sending a letter from New York to Chicago cost more than directing that same note to Philadelphia. The result? Business models that encouraged highly regional media experiences instead of a national media or shared culture. It wasn’t until the implementation of flat rate postage that general interest magazines or the Sears catalogue appeared. As print media became more universally accessible throughout history, the language of moving pictures remained largely bound by region. A local cable news show was not accessible nationally and a national broadcast was not accessible globally. Now, the Internet is changing who can say what to whom and when.

In Boston, a woman named Jennifer Lebedev, a mother of two and a former classroom teacher started teaching English lessons from her kitchen and posting them on YouTube. At almost 30 million views, she now has English students on every continent except Antarctica. On a daily basis she interacts with students from all over the world through messages and comments in addition to her videos. She does not have to worry about a communication infrastructure inhibited by regional systems like her predecessors in a one room schoolhouse with their “pay-per-mile” postage. Lebedev has done more than just connect with viewers, she has developed relationships with them. Her viewers are her students, like Sultan from Pakistan, a pharmacist and who watches all her videos and comments. And Bahar, an English teacher from Turkey, who uses Jennifer’s lessons to supplement her own and is even in touch with Lebedev’s younger brother, who is currently living in Turkey.

Throughout my career at YouTube, I’ve witnessed this global viewing experience emerge. Seventy percent of our video views occur outside the U.S. And while there are some differences in top content based on local interests, every video finds an audience comprised of multiple nationalities. This even applies to those funny home videos, like the now-famous clip of the the “talking” twin babies in Brooklyn. By the time that video had reached 40 million views, nearly 30 million of them were from outside of the U.S. Five percent of those views came from Brazil, another 5% from Russia, and according to view count, one out of every one hundred people in the Philippines watched those two babies.

When I visited Baghdad in 2009, a teenager told me: “I use YouTube to find out what the world cares about. Before I only knew what Iraq cared about.” And the impact of additional media choice and connectivity is startling. Who are the most voracious consumers of YouTube? Saudi Arabians, who at 90 million views per day, are viewing more YouTube than any other country per capita Internet user. With a plethora of choices a click away, people find the communities that interest them and connect with new ones.

Complementing the ability to watch and share just about anything is the ability for anyone to create, like Lebedev in her kitchen in Boston. On YouTube it’s often the “viral videos” that garner the most attention in the press, but those videos don’t tell the bigger story. What’s extraordinary about most videos is actually how ordinary they are. Alongside amazing citizen journalism and the world’s biggest music stars are people sharing cooking and car repair tips and teaching each other to speak foreign languages or play the harmonica.


This extraordinarily ordinary spirit was captured in 2011’s documentary Life in a Day, where producer Ridley Scott and director Kevin Macdonald crowdsourced videos from the YouTube community depicting their lives on July 24, 2010. Eighty thousand submissions came from 192 nations yielding 4,500 hours of footage. As Macdonald says, the film “could only be made in the last five years because … you can get enough people who will have an understanding of how to shoot something.”

And indeed, this is the magic and potential of media in the digital age. We’re speeding towards a global citizenship marked by the ability to create and share with those around the block or across the world. Over the next 10 years, I believe the winners of new media will be those who don’t divide along national boundaries but transmit through them. On the other side we’ll emerge with more understanding, connections, and empathy.

About the author

Hunter Walk focuses on YouTube as a platform for social good, learning and free expression. He views YouTube’s relationship with "good" as supported by three main pillars: Causes & Non Profits; Education; and, finally, Activism and Free Expression.