Facebook Doesn’t Need (Or Even Want) a Dislike Button
In an informal Q&A at his company’s headquarters, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook would ship a feature for which many of its users have long clamored: a “dislike button.” The need to expand options beyond a thumbs up is obvious. What shape that option will take, though, is anything but.
The problem with “Like” is also what makes it so effective: It’s reductive. It converts human interaction into a simple binary, or even something less than that. “The Like button has turned into a very important function,” says Dr. Larry Rosen, who specializes in the psychology of technology. “What I think it reflects is an easy way to do two things. One is an easy way to signal to people that you read their material. And two is to be visible to everyone else.” It’s also, Rosen says, the single-most common activity on Facebook.
It’s a system that works just fine, until we run into something we’re interested in, but don’t like at all.
You can measure how often this happens in not days or hours but seconds. Scrolling down my Facebook News Feed just now, in seconds I ran into my first minor existential dilemma. My friend Brandon has shared a New York Times article with the headline “How Segregation Destroys Black Wealth“. I am glad he shared it. It’s something I want to read, a topic I feel is important. I wouldn’t give it a thumbs up in a million moons.
It’s not that I’m worried anyone will interpret that “Like” to mean that I think the crippling effects of systemic racism (or, in your own News Feed, the death of a beloved relative, or a story about Syrian refugees, or something as mundane as a poorly timed flat tire) is good. It’s that damn icon. A thumbs up is inherently goofy. It’s for Little League coaches and guys named Chad. The last time an upward pointing thumb carried any emotional weight was in the late days of the Roman Colosseum.
“I think it’s exceedingly bizarre that the only option is to put thumbs up” says Dr. Rosen. “Thumbs up is so ambiguous. There should be some neutral way to say ‘I grok you,’ but there isn’t.”
This is not a new problem. It’s one that’s followed the Like button around since it was first conceived, in 2007, as the “awesome” button. The majority of what you see on Facebook is not awesome. And the mental contortions required to read a thumbs up as “I like that you shared this horrible thing” aren’t anywhere near worth the sinking feeling that accompanies clicking it beneath word of the latest Ebola outbreak.
And now an alternative option is coming. An option that will endeavor to be appropriately clickable on your friend’s post about getting evicted or dumped or fired. But the real question, now that we know one is coming, becomes: How will the button (or buttons) actually work?
Thumb und Drang
It’s not like Facebook doesn’t know this is an issue. “People have asked about the dislike button for many years,” in Zuckerberg’s own words. One reason it may have taken this long, though, is that it’s not a simple fix.
The knee-jerk (to keep things anatomical) solution would be to create a thumbs down, a Dislike to balance out the Like, a perfect yin and yang of passive interest. “Now that Facebook isn’t in desperate growth mode, it can start to filter the unpleasant stuff out,” says 451 Research analyst Ryan Pelz-Sharpe.
In that implementation, a Dislike button could give Facebook users the chance to bury items they find offensive, or unappealing. That would be similar to functionality on sites like Reddit and Hacker News, where a down vote is understood to say “don’t show me this anymore.”
That carries a few complications with it, at least as the lone option. It actively fosters negativity. It could too easily be read as an indictment of the person posting, or of the article being shared, rather than its subject. It would require a different set of icons for brands, lest paid-for ads get drowned in a sea of downturned thumbs. Most important, it would instantly turn Facebook into a place where people can expect to feel bad about themselves. With the possible exceptions of church or the gym, no one wants to go to a place like that.
“I actually think that a Dislike button is going to cause problems,” says Rosen. “I think just like anything else online, when you’re behind a screen, you have an option to do something that might upset someone, you’re more likely to take that option…I’m concerned that it may ramp up the negative dialogue.”
Negative dialogue drives people away; that’s the opposite of Facebook’s aims. What, then, in its place? Facebook declined a request for more details, and we won’t know for sure what it’s planning until it’s here. But let’s think about what Facebook needs.
“It’s important to give people more options than just ‘like,’” said Zuckerberg, which is true. So true, in fact, that Facebook already does this. Its users can share a post with their friends without further remarks or endorsement. They can leave a lengthy comment on a friend’s post to express disappointment, elation, anger, or grammatical pedantry. It’s already possible to express the precise nature and target of your dislike. People do it all the time, when they feel strongly enough.
And that’s the problem, right there. Facebook’s algorithms rely on engagement to determine what makes it into the News Feeds of its users. Every like, share, and comment counts, along with a host of other factors. Comments are imperfect, though; as Pelz-Sharpe points out, it can be “remarkably difficult to pick up the difference between someone being humorous and someone who’s being poisonous.” Meanwhile, the queasy feeling that comes with “Liking” bad news means there exists, potentially, a host of posts that people would want to read that aren’t being distributed as widely as they should.
Go back to that NYT article for a moment. I don’t want to “Like” it, for the aforementioned reasons. I don’t feel that I have anything meaningful to add to the conversation, so I won’t comment. And I’ve only actively shared a handful of news stories in the last few years, and I’m not likely to share it now. As far as the algorithm is concerned, I have significantly less interest in this story than I do in reality. Presumably, this has repercussions; the friends that Brandon and I have in common may be less likely to see it, or I may be less likely to see similar content in the future, or I may see fewer posts from Brandon, which would be a shame, because Brandon’s a good dude.
Either way, it makes my (and potentially other people’s) News Feed less optimal, which means I’ll end up spending less time there, which means I’ll see fewer ads, which means Facebook won’t get as much revenue.
“It all comes back to the money,” says Pelz-Sharpe. “At the end of the day Facebook has to sell advertising. The better it can target it, and the better it can hold onto its customers, that’s what it’s about.”
Putting It In Neutral
What Facebook needs isn’t a Dislike button, at least not in that boring, binary, puppy-chasing-butterflies way that the Like button exists. What Facebook needs is an option for neutral acknowledgement, something that says “I saw this.”
That might sound a little silly in theory, but it already exists elsewhere, successfully, in practice. Faving a tweet has become so meaningless that the recipient can project whatever meaning he or she chooses onto it. Slack’s “emoji reactions” give its users over 700 low-friction ways to express their feelings. Those represent two opposite ends of the customizability spectrum, but serve the same basic function. They both say “I saw this.” They make their respective services better.
Facebook’s main challenge is finding a way to accomplish the same thing that doesn’t just feel redundant. After all, says Dr. Rosen, most people already think of the Like button as a neutral acknowledgment to begin with. “I really don’t see what they’re going to put that’s going to enhance anything, other than forcing people to double click.”
Clearly, Facebook feels as though it’s figured this out. As to what form it takes, who knows? A star, an emoji, a nebulous blob; it will be whichever solution drives the fewest people away and gets the most people tapping and clicking (though hopefully not twice). Simple. Neutral. Absent of judgement. “I saw this.” That’s the solution Facebook users need. And even if it weren’t, it’s the one Facebook does.
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