Facebook’s bid to tap into our emotions with its new ‘like’ emoji is all about allowing us to vent and stay positive, but most of all, to stay on the platform.
The newly announced emoji means we are no longer limited to ‘Liking’ a post, but can now say ‘Wow’, ‘Haha’, ‘Sad’ and ‘Angry’, too. But the fact remains Facebook still lacks a simple ‘dislike’ reaction. One reason could be that negative content reduces engagement, and this is the last thing Facebook wants us to do.
The important thing that’s likely to be happening here is that Facebook may be trying to create a more effective mechanism for tracking user engagement by encouraging a wider range of responses – and therefore more actions to track. On top of this, the platform may well be seeking more specific responses to make responses more informative. The end result is more revenue from better-targeted advertising and more valuable user data.
Over the last few years Facebook has become increasingly interested in the way people react emotionally to the content that is served on their screens. We’ve seen this come and go with services like the implementation of chat emoji, the use of stickers, and inline support for animated GIF files. Facebook’s new emojis are the most visible of the recent changes.
The new likes system might seems innocuous, but because these new ‘like’ options are language-independent, this change affects the way hundreds of millions of people socialise on a daily basis. Along the way, Facebook is trying to tap into a common part of online culture, namely the use of response GIFs.
For years, users have demanded some sort of ‘dislike’ button. It’s an interesting demand, but it’s also interesting it’s taken Facebook so long to respond. Even now that they have implemented these new options, there’s still no outright ‘dislike’ option.
We now have the old familiar ‘like’ button, along with a number of other options: Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, Angry. These options broadly follow the voting system that has been used by Buzzfeed for several years.
While Sad and Angry might look like negative responses, they’re filling a need for a sense of shared empathy, or shared rage. Now all those Facebook posts that you see where people complain about politics can be responded to with an angry face, and a person’s bereavement or breakup posts can be responded to with a sad face.
So, there’s a suite of new options, but nothing that’s absolutely negative, nothing where you can have a quick oppositional response to a post. We can speculate on why this is the case – and indeed some of the design decisions have been made public – but the lack of an actual ‘anti-like’ button is indicative of a design philosophy that can be compared to the process of negative or positive campaigning.
Keep them coming back
Positive campaigns, that rely on positive language, happy imagery and optimistic outcomes tend to drive up engagement with public relations campaigns. On the other hand, negative words, nihilistic commentary, and somewhat bleak outlooks tend to drive people away.
Both methods are used for different reasons, but in the case of Facebook, they’re wanting to make sure people keep returning to the platform.
Probably the most significant piece of evidence pointing towards Facebook’s interest in emotions is the infamous “Emotional Contagion” article from 2014.
A lot of people were outraged by this, and perhaps rightly so: Facebook conducted experiments into how people responded when their Facebook feeds were invisibly curated towards content with either a positive or negative content.
People were concerned that Facebook was conducting experiments on people without their consent, but also they were worried that Facebook might have subtly made life seem more strenuous or difficult, particularly for people with mental health issues or a suicidal ideation.
Facebook conducted this experiment on a phenomenal 689,003 people. This increases the likelihood of someone being negatively affected by the experiment, but is also an indicator of how much effort Facebook is putting into this kind of research. (My colleague Luke van Ryn and I go into more detail here).
What the whole situation does identify is that Facebook is intensely interested in how people emotionally respond to the content they see, so we shouldn’t think that this change to Facebook’s liking system is arbitrary, or poorly thought out.
Compare this to the experience at Ello. People may remember the somewhat abortive exodus to Ello from Facebook by people protesting Facebook’s ‘Real Name Policy’. Ello didn’t initially have any sort of in-built like, or like-equivalent. This seemed to suit users fairly well, but people have been trained by years of social media into wanting a quick and easy representation of engagement with a post or document.
In the case of Ello, users in Germany began tagging posts they enjoyed with the code :bread:.Ello’s internal markup system treated this as an internal code for a small emoji of a loaf of bread. The practice became such a staple that Ello now finds some of its funding through the sale of :bread: t-shirts.
Ello is an example of users creating their own means of communicating amongst themselves. Facebook is likely trying to find a way for accounting for these user practices by providing a means of expression directly in the platform’s interface.
Complexity of language
Facebook Stickers is probably an attempt to fill the gap provided by reaction GIF. These new ‘like’ options, however, are likely being implemented to replace comment fields.
Language is extremely complex. While it’s possible to document and track material through tools such as the ‘Natural Language Toolkit’ or the ‘Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count’ systems, overall context and other elements such as images and animated gifs disrupt these systems.
By limiting user responses to a number of predetermined variables, Facebook is able to streamline users into simpler responses.
Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Facebook is offering a new suite of options for engagement, likely because they’re wanting more information about how you feel.
This is likely happening in the hope that getting a better handle on how you feel will allow them to feed you more targeted advertising, as well as sell more accurate user data.
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