"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Facebook Reactions Are No Laughing Matter

Prepare yourself for a not particularly shocking observation: when it comes to interpersonal communication, there are certain types of information that are not conveyed particularly well by information technology. Indeed, it should not be overly difficult to think of examples in your own media usage that have revealed the many ways in which communication technologies continually fall short of fully conveying the desired message. Sometimes with unfortunate results. Alas, this is not all that surprising. After all, how does one convey the thousands of slight shifts in tone, posture, and facial expression that one is not even conscious of making? Language is itself an often unsatisfactory communication tool, and when language is filtered through things like social media meaning can become even more strained.

All of which is to say: the medium we use to communicate something generally places certain limitations on what we can effectively communicate. Or, to put it slightly differently, if one of the main ways that a social media platform gives you to respond to people’s postings is to “like” those things than you may feel at a bit of a loss. Is there not something profoundly improper about replying to your friend’s post about things going distinctly badly for them by hitting a “like” or “favorite” button?

One could argue that the history of Facebook’s “like” button is inextricably bound up with the history of people saying that the “like” button was not enough. And now, after quite a lot of experimenting, Facebook has decided to give its users a more robust set of options. In addition to the “like” button, Facebook users can now respond to posts with five additional reactions, these include: “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “sad,” and “angry.” While tech companies have a tendency of pushing changes that fit their own agenda onto users (did you really want that last Terms of Service change?) there are also some instances in which it seems that these same companies are genuinely trying to respond to a desire on the part of their user base. And with the unveiling of Reactions, it seems that Facebook can argue that it is giving its users what they want. Certainly, there will be some users who quibble and criticize the various Reactions (this is the Internet), but Facebook can confidently offer the retort “you wanted more options than just the “like” button, we gave them to you.”

And yet, despite the fact that it seems that Facebook was responding to something many of its users actually wanted, it is still worth approaching this change with a certain degree of skepticism. In truth, when a tech company (or any company, really) unveils an overhaul it’s advisable to always consider the change with some skepticism. Yes, Facebook’s Reactions may allow the platform’s users to do new things – but it does not seem to be a significant logical leap to suggest that Facebook probably would not have implemented these changes unless the company felt that it had something to gain from these changes. For the purposes of framing this much-needed skepticism, we here at the Shipwreck, have often deployed Neil Postman’s “Six Questions to Ask of New Technology” (to which we generally add two more questions) – and these questions are as useful for thinking about the roll out of Reactions as they are for thinking about something like delivery drones.

And so, without further ado…

What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” [42]

This question is deceptively simple for something like Facebook Reactions. Indeed, it seems that the clear answer is just: the problem is that the “like” button is an insufficient way to respond. When the problem is framed in this way it even makes it seem like the solution is a pretty good one. But, as was mentioned earlier, one should be willing to approach the “problems” and “solutions” offered by tech companies with some skepticism. Yes, the Facebook user may have a “problem” with only being able to click “like” – but can’t that very same user simply type a short message in response? Instead of clicking “like” on a sad story can’t somebody type “I’m sorry” or “oh no” or a similar message? Thus, it is incorrect to suggest that “like” is the only way a person can react – though it may be the only “one click” reaction. Instead, when thinking about “the problem to which Facebook Reactions are the solution” it may be more useful to think about the way that “likes” function not for users, but for the company. Sure, “likes” is an easy way to signal that you (ahem) “like” something – but the “like” button also functions as an easy way for Facebook’s algorithms to quickly and conveniently gather information on its users’ preferences. It’s a lot easier for Facebook to know that a user likes a given television program because they have “liked” it than it is for Facebook’s algorithms to parse through lengthy posts written in cryptic terminology in which somebody ultimately expresses they approve of a given show. On a similar note, the “like” button makes it easy for Facebook to know that a person enjoys beach photos, animal pictures, friends’ birthdays, techno music, and period romance dramas. It may sound silly to put it this simply, but the “like” button is an integral part of how Facebook knows who its users are. The problem is that the “like” button only provides so much information about users, and only allows users to supply that information in a single way – to gather a more robust and complex trove of information people, Facebook needs more complex tools. Granted, more complicated tools that can still channel their results easily into algorithms – like giving people six responses instead of just one. If the problem is that there’s only so much information a company can harvest from a single reaction, than the solution is to provide users with more reactions. Why would a company settle for knowing what people “like” when it can also find out what people find funny, what amazes them, and what depresses them? Answer: it wouldn’t.

“Whose problem is it?” [45]

If one wants to cling to the simplistic framing of the first question, than the “problem” here belongs to every Facebook user who has ever felt that it would be inappropriate to click “like” but who still wanted to express some sort of reaction without having to go so far as actually type out a message. The intent here is not to say that this is not a genuine problem some people have experienced, but to emphasize that there really is a deeper set of problems at work here. In answering Postman’s first question, we’ve suggested that the important “problem” to focus on in considering Reactions is that Facebook can only gather so much information based on the “like” button – which flows easily into a way of answering the second of Postman’s question. The answer: it’s Facebook’s problem. True, it is also Facebook’s problem that its users were saying they wanted more options, but few of Facebook’s users probably would have said that the problem is that Facebook wasn’t gathering enough data on them. Facebook Reactions provide Facebook with a host of new streams of information on users, and allows the platform to construct an ever more complex informational profile of its users (big data gets even bigger) – and the fact that Facebook has such deep knowledge of its users is one of the reasons that advertisers love dumping money into the site (and it’s also how some politicians can use the site to carefully target users with advertisements). It’s profitable to be able to tell would be advertisers that one can connect them to people who like their products and are single and are female and are between 18 and 25 years old and also like the products of certain competitors and have an affinity for a certain musician – but wouldn’t it be even better if one could say “these people already love your product, but have you considered what you could do to reach the people who say they like but don’t love your product?” or “Your last advertising campaign made a lot of people react with haha – well done” or “that message your candidate just sent out has received a lot of angry faces as a response – was that what you wanted?” or “95% of people who love your product also love this pop star – have you considered hiring the pop star for an advertising campaign?” The problem is that Facebook needs more information – it’s Facebook’s problem – and Reactions is an excellent way to solve that problem. Facebook Reactions are a tweak that helps Facebook improve its product – and though users may benefit from this – it is worth remembering that Facebook exists to make money, and this change can be easily interpreted as a way for Facebook to make even more of it. You may have the problem of wanting to be able to reply with a sad face to your friend’s woebegone update, but don’t believe it when Facebook claims to be concerned about your problems, its concerned about its own problems. And “how do we gather even more information about our users” isn’t your problem.

Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” [45]

This question might seem a bit out of place for a consideration of Facebook Reactions, but it is still worth reflecting on for a few moments. Though it may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to suggest this – it may well be that the “people” who will be harmed by this solution are the very same people who had wanted it in the first place. Yes, the “like” button can be pretty vague – but in that vagueness it is fairly easily understandable. If somebody “likes” something it is easy to understand what they meant, especially if one knows that the only option is to “like” something. But now? Why did your friend “like” that post instead of “love” it? Why did that person reply “haha” to something that was serious? What the heck do all of these “angry” responses mean? And are all of these people just using “wow” sarcastically? In the hope of having a better set of ways to emotionally express your reactions you may quickly find that you now actually have to do a lot more parsing of meaning. A little animation of a face with a tear is not the same thing as seeing somebody actually crying – and it does not really communicate the same thing as sadness or empathy. Heck, the words “sadness” and “empathy” do not even fully convey the meaning of such emotions. It may be time consuming to type out an actual response – but the meaning there is generally clearer than that which you get just from a basic “angry” face. And yet the deeper harm to consider here has to do with the question of whether or not it’s really such a wonderful idea to be supplying a massive unaccountable corporation with even more information about yourself. In the past, Facebook has shown a worrisome willingness to toy with its users’ emotions – is it really wise to supply the company with more emotional data with which it can play? It, to be clear, is not totally apparent how Facebook will make use of all of the new data that it is able to gather thanks to Reactions – but it is worth being aware that some of these uses may run counter to what Facebook users would want. Is Facebook giving a fun new toy to its users, or is Facebook giving itself a powerful way to toy with its users? Yes.

What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” [48]

Be honest with yourself: you respond to the world around you in more than six ways. Sure, there are things you “like” and things you “love,” sometimes you go “haha” and other times you go “wow,” and yes sometimes you are “sad” or “angry.” But sometimes you have other reactions. Where is the Facebook Reaction for “confused” or “hungry” or “embarrassed” or “flirtatious” or “existential dread” or “silliness” or “shrug”? Those who are fans of emojis may enjoy the wide assortment of responses they can make using those little symbols – and may grumble at the lack of options that Facebook supplies – but even emojis only capture so many reactions. And many of these reactions can be just as confusing as normal text. Furthermore, whether it’s emojis or Facebook Reations one is constrained by the symbols decided upon by a corporate entity. The only reason you can send a flirtatious “kissy face” emoji is because emoji designers gave you that option (granted, the only reason you can type “kisses” [or something flirtatious] into a text field is because a tech designer gave you that option). Facebook may be framing Reactions as a solution to the problem of only having the “like” option – but it immediately creates the problem of only having these six options. Truth be told, these six reactions may not be the most useful – after all, there still isn’t a clear “dislike” button. Though this lack, certainly makes sense: would a company like Monsanto want its Facebook page to display that millions of people have taken the time to “dislike” it? Doubtful. Facebook has expanded how people can react, but it is still dictating the ways in which people can react (though users are still able to type messages). The problem here is that in giving people more options what Facebook is really doing is giving people the illusion of choices – you can still only respond with the Facebook approved set of reactions. The “like” button was a lacking response, but these six options are also extremely lacking – even if they seem like they’re giving you many more ways to respond. Despite the presence of the “sad” face and the “angry” face – the Reactions are still fairly positive. After all, “sad” is probably intended to show empathy, while “anger” does not necessarily signify that one is “angry” with the person posting something (it could be a symbol of “yes, this makes me mad as well). With these 6 Reactions, Facebook is subtly framing the boundaries of acceptable communication on Facebook – and those boundaries are filled with upbeat animations that seem defiantly positive (empathy or angry agreement are still positive reactions). By acknowledging that it’s a problem that a lot of meaning gets lost when communicated online, Facebook Reactions respond by providing a seeming solution which just proves that the problem still exists. What the heck does the “angry” face really mean? How do you figure out the difference between “like” and “love.” And of course, the broader problem that lurks in the background here is, still, that in using these Reactions users are giving Facebook even more information with which to manipulate them. If you thought the targeted advertising was unnerving before…just wait until you receive an ad saying “it seems like you’re feeling sad? Why not get yourself a mocha latte?” Or what happens when you reply with a “sad” face once too often and Facebook blocks your access for fear that you’re bad vibes are making other users unhappy?

What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” [50]

Facebook is a large, powerful company with a heck of a lot of money – and a heck of a lot of users. All of which is to say, Facebook is a company that already has a lot of political and economic power. Numerous other companies rely on Facebook, politicians rely on Facebook, independent musicians rely on Facebook, protest movements rely on Facebook, your friend hosting a party this weekend relies on Facebook…Facebook, Facebook, Facebook! Having a Facebook account has become an important means by which many people access other online services – and being on Facebook has even become something of a norm in many areas (wherein to not have a Facebook profile marks one as “odd”). Though many people may express how much they’d love to get off of Facebook, there’s a certain sense that there’s no alternative. And, furthermore, Facebook is committed to finding those folks who still lack Internet access and getting them online – presumably so that they can join Facebook. Or, to restate the earlier point: Facebook is a large, powerful company with a heck of a lot of money – and a heck of a lot of users. And Facebook Reactions provides Facebook with a way to increase its power. Having more robust information about its users’ likes and loves certainly gives Facebook the chance to market its informational wares to advertisers (or governments that are curious about the mood of the populace). Similarly Facebook Reactions will provide the company with even more information about the tastes and troubles of its users – which provides the company with social and political power in addition to economic power. Is an article floating around Facebook about economic inequality that is making everybody reply “angry”? Are people “angry” and “sad” about an incident of police brutality? Do people “like” the pop star’s new song, but they hit “love” for the same pop star’s last song? These are not just idle bits of information – they are potentially telling Facebook (and the companies and governments working with Facebook) how to manipulate people, and potentially what to expect from them. As has been stated before, Facebook has a history of manipulating its users’ emotions – Facebook Reactions will make it easier for the company to do that – and there is a heck of a lot of economic and political power to be gained from having that kind of power. Who knows, perhaps if some viral video getting re-posted on Facebook is making everybody “angry” –Facebook will respond by keeping that video out of people’s newsfeeds while flooding those same newsfeeds with “wow” and “haha” inducing videos of a puppy attacking a watermelon. Facebook has become a wealthy and powerful political entity because of how much it knows about its users – and this power will only increase when the company knows more about its users. Once Facebook’s algorithms learn what makes people “angry” perhaps the site will be able to keep that anger inducing content from being seen. Remember, the danger is not always an Orwellian Big Brother figure – sometimes it is the company that just wants to make sure you are happy (a la Huxley).

“What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?” [53]

What does a “wow” face really mean? No, seriously. What does it really mean? Shock? Surprise? Sarcasm? Awe? Or, similarly, what does the “angry” face really mean? Is it meant as a way of saying “this information makes me angry” or does it mean “I disagree with you” or does it mean “I am outraged at this injustice” or “I am angry that I was not able to attend this barbecue that looks like it was a lot of fun”? Similarly what’s the real difference between somebody clicking “like” and somebody clicking “love?” Why did your friend “like” that one status update, and “love” a different one? Are they flirting with you? Teasing you? Once you can “love” something, doesn’t just “liking” it become somewhat passive aggressive? There is undeniably something gained when you have options that extend beyond just clicking “like” – but there is also something lost. When the only option is to respond with “like” than it is widely understood that this answer routinely falls short. But when you have additional options it provides the false sense that much more nuance is available –when in actuality nuance may be lost. Why respond with a message when you can simply put a sad face? But, at the same time, is receiving a “sad” face really the same thing as seeing that somebody actually wrote “I’m sorry?” Facebook Reactions feel like high-speed emotional responses that provide a charming façade of giving a damn when in fact they’re little more than cute little animations that do things like laugh and cry. They sub out a corporately designed emotional response for the complexity entailed in a person actually having to think about how they are going to respond. Emotions are complex, expressing emotions is complicated, picking from one of six cute little options is pretty simple. Hitting the “like” button is often rather meaningless – it suggests engagement or attention, but it can also express such engagement in the most superficial of ways. And that’s what Facebook Reactions may also represent – superficial sympathy, fake amusement, exaggerated astonishment, and anger so bland that it can be expressed with a cute animation. Facebook Reactions don’t require you to think of a nuanced response – it isn’t about thinking of a nuanced response – it’s about reducing a response to a clichéd little image. It will be interesting to see what happens to the “like” option now that there is a “love” option – perhaps the “like” will come to be seen as sarcastic or condescending and shall slowly wither away amongst the torrent of exaggerated expressions of adoration. Granted, the main shift in language that Facebook Reactions ushers in is that it encourages Facebook users to speak in exactly the terms Facebook wants. After all, when you speak Facebook’s language it’s easier for the company to channel that into its algorithms.

*          *          *

There’s only so much information that can be captured by using the “like” button. But by expanding the types of available Reactions what Facebook is really doing is making it easier to capture you.

It’s a shame there isn’t a Facebook Reaction that expresses the realization that you’ve been had.

Though this lack isn’t really all that surprising.


Works Cited

Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (Vintage Books, 2000).

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

9 comments on “Facebook Reactions Are No Laughing Matter

  1. Su Leslie
    February 25, 2016

    Thanks for this. I’m not a big user of emojis and am weaning myself off FaceBook as I learn more about it, but I think this is a “must-read” analysis.

  2. K.E. Wilkinson
    March 1, 2016

    I shared this on Facebook. (Irony, right?)

    I think this is one of the most thought-provoking blog posts I’ve read in a while. Thank you for writing it.

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This entry was posted on February 25, 2016 by in Capitalism, Culture, Ethics, Impending Doom, Social Networking, Society, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , .

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