Published 8 years, 9 months past

Facebook is emotionally smarter than we give it credit for, though perhaps not as algorithmically smart as it could be.

I’ve been pondering this for a few weeks now, and Zeynep Tufekci’s “Facebook and the Tyranny of the ‘Like’ in a Difficult World” prodded me to consolidate my thoughts.

(Note: This is not about what Tufekci writes about, exactly, and is not meant as a rebuttal to her argument.  I agree with her that post-ranking algorithms need to be smarter.  I also believe there are design solutions needed to compensate for the unthinking nature of those algorithms, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Tufekci’s piece perfectly describes the asymmetrical nature of Facebook’s “engagement” mechanisms, commented on for years: there is no negative mirror for the “Like” button.  As she says:

Of course he cannot like it. Nobody can. How could anyone like such an awful video?

What happens then to the video? Not much. It will mostly get ignored, because my social network has no way to signal to the algorithm that this is something they care about.

What I’ve been thinking of late is that the people in her network can comment as a way to signal their interest, caring, engagement, whatever you want to call it.  When “Like” doesn’t fit, comments are all that’s left, and I think that’s appropriate.

In a situation like Tufekci describes, or any post that deals with the difficult side of life, comments are exactly what’s called for.  Imagine if there were a “Dislike” button.  How many would just click it without commenting?  Before you answer that question, consider: how many click “Like” without commenting?  How many more would use “Dislike” as a way to avoid dealing with the situation at hand?

When someone posts something difficult — about themselves, or someone they care about, or the state of the world — they are most likely seeking the support of their community.  They’re asking to be heard.  Comments fill that need.  In an era of Likes and Faves and Stars and Hearts, a comment (usually) shows at least some measure of thought and consideration.  It shows that the poster has been heard.

Many of those posts can be hard to respond to.  I know, because many of the Facebook posts my wife and I were making two years (and one year) ago right now were doubtless incredibly hard to read.  I remember many people leaving comments along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking of you all.”  And even that probably felt awkward and insufficient to those who left such comments.  Crisis and grief and fear in others can make us very uncomfortable.  Pushing past that discomfort to say a few words is a huge show of support.  It matters.

Adding “Dislike” would be a step backward, in terms of emotional intelligence.  It could too easily rob people who post about the difficult parts of life of something they clearly seek.

Comments (7)

  1. I struggled for years trying to understand Facebook’s approach on this, and I’ve come around to thinking pretty much inline with what you wrote. I think the disconnect with Facebook is that the “Like” button implies one set of emotional responses and people naturally look for a way to just as easily express its opposite. As you point out, that would be a mistake.

    I believe Twitter actually has a better approach in this regard – a “favorite” can mean be a simple acknowledgment or “I like this”, “I support that you tweeted this”, or it can simply be used as a way to bookmark or “favorite” links you want to go back and look at or read an article linked to later. And despite its name, if you’ve got a tweet about a terrible event that happened, I don’t think most people confuse a fave on that as meaning you “liked” that a terrible thing happened.

    I almost wonder whether Facebook would be better off dropping the thumbs-up “Like” and replacing it with a less emotionally loaded indicator and encourage people to express likes and dislikes in the comments – after all, not having a character limit means there’s no reason not to say a few words (or more than a few words) either way.

    Without words and context (e.g. actual communication), social media just becomes an incredibly boring/awkward point-and-click game :P

  2. When considering what a dislike or similar button would do, I imagined it primarily as easing the way for bullying and trolling. But, I think you make a good observation about the need for more nuanced responses for negative or difficult emotions where positive emotions can be handled more flippantly (e.g. clicking a button) with less danger.

    Thinking about comments versus likes this way, pushes the burden of communicating care onto the human user who has a greater capacity for nuance. It makes me wonder, then, why is this such an awkward interaction? Here, I don’t know that the problem is the design of likes and comments, but rather a function of the sociality Facebook.

    Over the years as my Facebook friends list has grown to include not just my college classmates but also my family, childhood friends, work colleagues, and academic peers, I have dramatically changed the way I act on Facebook. What was once appropriate among a small group of my college peers is no longer appropriate for work colleagues. And, so like around the water cooler at work, the pressure to be positive and apolitical comes from the relationships of the people present and not necessarily the design of the space.

    When Google+ first came out, I liked it for the way it made it easier to segregate the social groups in my life. (It was just too bad almost none of my social groups were there.) Facebook allows this kind of separating, but it is much more difficult, especially when commenting.

    So, I guess in short, I agree with you, but I think Zeynep’s example is more political than expressing care for a grieving friend and because of this the issue is more complex than likes and comments. It is partly about Facebook’s treatment of our social networks and partly an issue of how we are socialized to protect our politics from parts of our lives. Being able to declare support for an issue (especially with memes and click-bait) is a privilege that some cannot risk in some social circles (e.g. retaliation from an employer for pro-union statements on Facebook).


  3. Eric, I actually agree that “dislike” is not a good button to have, for the reasons you outline.

    I am advocating for two things: 1-A way to signal “I care” or “this is important” that also signals to the algorithm that this is an upvote for visibility;

    2-A way to signal to my friends that “I like this”, “my sympathies” or “congratulations” that does NOT signal to the algorithm that I would like to see more.

    The current model of having only like creates “signal collapse” in which many different signals, social and also to the algorithm, are being conflated, to the detriment of important goals.

    The lack of former signal (“This is Important”) is causing distressing or difficult news to disappear from the stream. My video of those refugee kids on Facebook has 10% of the views of my Medium article about the video–and some of those views are from people who found it via Medium.

    The lack of latter (“Congratulations but don’t show me a million more”) is causing my feed to drown in babies and weddings–I click on “like” to support my friends, and I hope to do it once, not have my feed overtaken by 30 pictures of their (beautiful) wedding, at the expense of everything else.

    I know this creates design and UI issues. I would like the 250 billion dollar company to think harder at this. I fear that the problem is the advertising model, not the design challenge.

    I really would like a heart button in addition to “like”, visible just to that person, and no signal to the algorithm for more visibility. This would be a social signal alone.

    I’d also like a “+1” or “Important” button for those things that are hard to like, but are important to circulate. This would be a signal to the algorithm.

  4. I almost never “like” things. I generally comment. I feel like it is more interactive.

  5. A forum I frequent (largely creative writing type stuff) recently added an expanded suite of ‘like’ buttons that I think really helped provide proper context for how people felt about posts, and made the system far more useful.

    While there are a few more ‘unique’ options in certain circumstances (admin-only, or only in certain forums), the ones that are available on all posts are:

    Like – Generic like
    Informative – Providing information, answering questions, etc
    Insightful – An interesting idea, interpretation, or otherwise insightful analysis of a topic
    Hugs – Something that connects emotionally, or a way to signal comfort or sympathy
    Funny – Stuff to make you laugh

    There are no ‘dislike’ buttons, and one early option that was more negative (the Picard Facepalm) was also removed. If you want to be negative about something, you have to do it as a comment.

    But in general, the above give a pretty solid range of the most relevant responses to a post that people might have. Five button options covers the majority of any real (signal) responses. Anything more nuanced can get the generic Like and get a comment.

    Zeynep’s idea of a “That’s nice” button (ie: congratulations, but I’m not interested in seeing more) would be useful in controlling the Facebook delivery algorithms, but seems orthogonal to the issue of “How do I feel about this topic?”, and thus not useful when mixed in with the other possible response buttons.

  6. This morning whilst travelling in to work, here in the UK, I heard on my car radio that Facebook have announced the intention to add a dislike button. A small snippet from a presentation by Mark Zuckerberg was played. Afterwards the DJ, by no means an “expert” or one for making profound comments on his breakfast show, aired his conclusion than Zuckerberg didn’t seem to be over convincing in his speech. He then when on to say, “How is he going to make this really work” before going on to say how nuanced this would need to be.

    The only way I can see this working (only in part) is if when creating a post, you indicate that you find it something which you find wrong and it can only be “disliked” and not liked by those reading. That way affirmation can be sent by friends, though as you have suggested – the ability to like / dislike without commenting – calls into question the weight of such actions, especially in the times of important news as opposed to pictures of your new kitten.

    If pursuing a policy of only Like / Dislike and not other nuanced options as discussed on here, it’s a tough nut to crack. I’m looking forward to find out what the Facebook “solution” is.

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