Hope from Love Wisconsin
It was with huge excitement that three years ago Wisconsin Humanities partnered with Love Wisconsin, taking over the production of its digital storytelling platform from founders Brijetta (Jet) Hall Waller and Megan Monday. At the time, we saw the Love Wisconsin project succeeding at the very thing that they, and we, felt so urgently: the need to do whatever we could to connect Wisconsinites across our differences and to encourage empathy.
In the three years since, we have continued to share hundreds of stories of incredibly diverse Wisconsinites. The Love Wisconsin project does this work primarily on Facebook, where instead of the divisiveness and negativity that make headlines, we have maintained a social media space where every week thousands upon thousands of people offer our storytellers praise and support.
We have long believed that engagement with the humanities — with storytelling like Love Wisconsin’s — can make a meaningful difference in our beliefs and attitudes. But there’s scant research to prove this or to help us understand how it happens. We wanted to know definitively, not just in our guts, whether we really are seeing the creation of empathy among Love Wisconsin story readers.
We decided it was time to find out.
An Analysis of Empathy
We turned for help to Lewis Friedland, a professor at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication.
Lew is one of three professors who lead the Center for Communication and Civil Renewal. The research group’s mission is to better understand the ways that Wisconsin has communicated over the past decade, making them the ideal scholars to determine whether Love Wisconsin’s goal of using empathy to build a more connected, compassionate, and engaged community was being achieved. We agreed on research goals, and the study began.
For the next few months, Lew worked with graduate students Yiming Wang and Juwon Hwang to download and analyze Love Wisconsin’s Facebook archive of 1,404 Facebook story posts and 23,652 reader comments. At first, they used a sophisticated computerized method to attempt a quantitative analysis, searching for patterns of empathy. But they ultimately decided that the computer method, while at the cutting edge of this type of textual analysis, was not going to provide the answers we were looking for.
Lew then took it upon himself to dig into the data. After personally analyzing 3,433 reader comments on the 22 most popular story posts, he found some recurring themes. And he found definitive evidence of empathy.
But there was more. He reported that in addition to empathy, the nuance he found in the readers’ comments also demonstrated their feelings of sympathy, compassion, identification (i.e. feelings of attachment to another person or group), shared/cultural memory, personal memory, social or cultural awareness of others, perception of wrongs or injustices, and a desire to correct or right injustices.
With each personal story capturing a moving slice of our humanity, they drew out the humanity of Love Wisconsin readers in multiple ways that the research could positively identify. The rich and diverse cluster of emotional feedback was found on practically all of Love Wisconsin’s stories.
Such was the case for Alexa Posny and her mother, Virginia.
Lili Vera with her three sons
Evaluating the Results, Continuing the Mission
Lew and his team ultimately found that the community of Love Wisconsin has been built on positivity and understanding others through our similarities, differences, and everything in between. Although negativity floods social media channels, even the smallest glimpse of positivity inspired oceans of hope — hope found in every comment they analyzed.
It was in the congratulations extended to Virginia Posny. It was in the gratitude offered to Buck and all veterans, and the comments about her courage directed to Lili. Every person, every story, every experience shared through Love Wisconsin was met by an empathetic community looking to listen, happy to learn and share, and hopeful for others to do the same.
Most exciting of all, according to the report, the community built through Love Wisconsin has allowed for the “development of the qualities above to emerge in a new kind of collective cultural dialogue and reflection,” going on to call the Love Wisconsin community a “rare combination of strong first-person storytelling, direct outreach, and use of social media” resulting in “a reweaving of the civic and cultural fabric of [Wisconsin].”
In the end, the team concluded what we hoped the study would find. The community of Love Wisconsin uses empathy among other positive responses to connect, learn, and understand. With each story, hundreds of readers gained new perspectives on the obstacles, achievements, and aspirations of their neighbors near and far who together make a home in our state.
“This kind of impact is an essential model for good in our current times,” says Jet. “Love Wisconsin provides a North Star that shows us how we can come together as a community in a meaningful way.”