I can see why Mark Zuckerberg thought Facebook Reactions were a good idea. Worn down by years of users asking him why there was no to “dislike” things on Facebook, he finally saw a way to give them an alternative to the Like button without turning Facebook into Reddit, where posts live and die based on how many upvotes or downvotes they get.
The answer: Facebook Reactions, a strip of emoji that appear when you either hover (desktop) or long-press (mobile) the Like button. Comprising emoji that represent Like, Love, Haha, Yay, Wow, Sad and Angry, Reactions allow a user to quickly respond to a Facebook post with something other than a Like. Now, instead of “liking” a sad status update, you can respond with a sentiment that feels a little more appropriate.
Zuckerberg says Facebook Reactions are about letting people express empathy, and I believe him, but it’s likely only part of the impetus. You see, Facebook’s News Feed is algorithmically driven to surface the posts with the most engagement, and one of the key factors it looks at is Likes.
The thing is, people tend not to Like difficult things, even though engagement (through commenting, time spent, etc.) on such a post might be otherwise high.
The News Feed algorithm compensates for this in various ways, of course, but it would be much neater if only it could look at some similar metric for those non-Likeable posts.
Enter Reactions, which seems tailor-made to solve this problem. Over time, as people get used to the emoji and begin “Yaying,” “Wowing” and “Sadding” various posts, Facebook will get better guidance for the News Feed, and users get more choice in how to interact with what they see. Everybody wins, right?
What looks good on the Menlo Park whiteboard, however, doesn’t always jibe with the real world, and we’re already starting to see social-politics issues arise now that Reactions has begun to roll out to a couple of regions.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that sarcastic Reactions are going to be a thing. A post highlighting a recent John Oliver segment about pumpkin spice lattes garnered at least one Angry reaction, which is either from a really passionate latte drinker or someone who just thinks he’s funny (I suspect the latter).
It’s not a big leap from there to Sad reactions to pet or baby pictures and Yay-ing complaints of first-world problems. I’m calling it now: When this rolls out to Pages (as it’s supposed to), for brands, sarcastic Reactions will be the new “bashtagging.”
Then there’s the hot button: Angry. I understand the motivation for including it. People share stories about various injustices (public and personal) all the time on Facebook, and anger is an appropriate emotion for those. But outside of those contexts, it’s a one-click recipe for cyberbullying. What happens the first time an ex reacts with Angry on a post where their former partner is celebrating finding new love? At what point do the courts start pointing to Angry reactions on Facebook to prove someone was behaving in a threatening manner?
As a user experience, though, the social politics of Reactions isn’t even the main problem. It’s that they offer too much choice. Time and again it’s been shown that if you offer users too much choice, they simply won’t make one. (Facebook has even seen this itself: Disaster-relief donations from its Donate Now button spiked when they stopped asking users to select specific amounts and organizations.)
And for serious issues, Facebook’s Reactions still don’t feel right. Does it make sense to compress the nuanced feelings you may have about, say, the Syrian refugee crisis into a goofy-looking yellow face with a teardrop on one eye? Is that kind of drive-by reacting really any better than just not leaving any reaction at all? If you really care about the issue, leaving a comment — even a short one — feels far more appropriate.
In the end, Facebook Reactions strikes me as an imperfect solution to a problem that’s largely created by a desire for better analytics. And I don’t mean to use the word dismissively. Analytics aren’t just for engineers and marketers — we all want to see “engagement” on our posts, even when we post something sad or troubling.
That engagement, though, doesn’t always lend itself to short, one-click solutions. Facebook Reactions’ heart is in the right place: The feature is trying to change a bland, binary choice into a rich experience that better reflects our feelings, but the emotion it’ll probably end up inspiring most is ambivalence.
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