The talk in the series of tubes this week buzzed over the new reaction emojis available on everyone’s favorite social media site—the Book of Face.
Whereas for most of the last decade, friends, friends of friends, and not-so-friendly trolls could only respond to a post by ‘liking’ it, the hip young folks coding our lives and harvesting our data from the plush citadels of Menlo Park have finally opened the doors of our communal digital psychology. Now, you not only have the option to like a post, but also to love, haha (by the far the most valuable addition, as it gives us a reason to abolish lol forever), wow, sad, and angry them. Please, someone, figure out how to verbify each of these, and quick. Master’s thesis?
Whatever the verbiage, everything has changed.
The move, of course, makes perfect sense. In fact, it’s a sort of incredible feat that the most dominant social media powerhouse in the cosmos took this long to acknowledge that there are staple human emotions other than ‘I like a thing.’ Path and Buzzfeed were ahead of the curve here, but now that the hegemon has played in, Mt. Emoji is no longer for the faint of heart.
Before this week, it was a dilemma whether to like a post about the death of the family dog or a laughable Trump quote or some stream-of-consciousness autobiographical nonsense that is, really, neither likeable nor worth reading at all, but mystically compels you to press the horror that is the See more action. Did liking sometimes signify solidarity? Sympathy? Revulsion? Terror? Such are the baffling questions of our age.
The computerized world laid down on the couch for Zuckerberg’s ten-year counseling session and discovered the rules of social psychology didn’t operate the same there as they did in the real world. We weren’t hypnotized. We weren’t psycho. We were simply limited.
Having options in communication is important. If you don’t have the words to talk about something, you are likely to misidentify it. It leads to awkward situations.
But now, the Facebook comedy hour has changed the game. Grab a Dramamine—it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
On the one hand, the people needed this. They needed it like they need eighty-five kinds of cereal in the breakfast aisle. You can do whatever you want. Whatever you want! You can go crazy.
On the other hand, people need this like they need a second mouth. I mean, one was enough, wasn’t it? And adding cakeholes, apart from being aesthetically complicated, also adds the danger of saying too much or saying the wrong thing or coming across stupid.
Facebook’s reaction renovation plays both hands. It should have gotten out while it wasn’t too far behind. Staying in, Zuckerberg? Bold move.
Sometimes options kill. Before, when we were stranded on the craggy Island of Like, you couldn’t go wrong because there was only one way to go. Sure, people might use the option strangely, but you couldn’t get too mad at them because you knew what they meant and because they only had the one choice afforded them: to like or not to like.
But now that we’ve “upgraded,” escaping the lonely isle to traverse the larger emotive archipelago, there are new possibilities—and that means new pitfalls. As we become more expressive, misinterpretation becomes the norm. Social media etiquette was already unclear—now it’s even harder to guess and impossible to nail down. Emotions, even and especially in the form of fiddly little smiley faces, have baggage. There is the new danger of actually making a mistake.
It has always been the hazard of screen-based communication that sentiment can only be approximated, not truly expressed. You lose tone and sarcasm, rhythm and hyperbole. Emojis try to fill in the gaps left by plain text, but they’re not there yet. In the meantime, the risks are real.
With the new response selections on Facebook, we are doomed. Let’s count the ways:
1. I like you. I love you.
The biggest problem will be everything written between the lines of like and love. Passive aggressive, much? She liked my photo. Why didn’t she love it? He loved my status, she only liked it. What’s up with that? High schoolers will have the hardest time, but, really, behavior on social media knocks us all down on the maturity scale. It’s an insecure world out there. Prepare yourself for the second-guessing whirlwind.
2. I thought you loved me
Will we be allowed to merely like wedding photos or baby clips? Or are we obligated to love them? Or is the best option to say nothing, which says a great deal?
3. The further devaluation of the word “love”
4. Don’t be angry
All of this is The Man’s dance around the longed-for dislike button. I applaud them for not including that unfriend-engine among their offerings, but they should have left well enough alone. Some might argue the anger face is the substitute for dislike, but that’s a quagmire. You can be angry about the content of a post without disliking that it was posted, and you can be angry that something was posted (or with the person who posted it) without disliking the content.
5. So sad
Please, spare us the sad face. Or at least make it actually sad instead of joke sad. A bald yellow circle with black dot eyes and a raindrop tear doesn’t say, “I’m truly sorry,” or “I’m genuinely sad,” or “I’m hurting, for real.” It says, “I’m a cartoon and I’m crying and I was made in Paint. Believe me.” Sadness is a weightier emotion than appreciation or enjoyment or even anger. It means the feeler is fragile. Creating an emoji suitable to the level of grief that comes from death or the heartbreak that comes from a lost relationship is an impossible task. Leave it be.
6. Nice job wrecking the corner bakery’s branding budget
Do you know how many businesses in the world have the Facebook like thumbs-up built into their branding? A lot. Are they going to have to switch to love or go for another of the options? Obviously, this is not Facebook’s problem, but, only-a-little-seriously, this affects a lot of people and companies outside of Silicon Valley. Insert whatever face.
7. Emotional illiteracy
The online masses are overly sensitive at the same time as they are entirely desensitized. This attempt to quantify emotions for Big Data’s gain promises to do a million tiny harms even if it does some average-sized good. Microaggressions on the way? The connection between what we say (or click) and what we feel is significant. Making a six-option palate of iconified feelings the default for human psychology does not close the gap, it highlights it.
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With current technology and artificial intelligence the way it is, the tech companies and their customers can’t win. Digital communication hasn’t reached the genuinely interpersonal level. As we push the boundaries of the possible and wander along the edge of accessible universes, we sometimes fall off.
We are pioneers, you know. A generation of digital voyageurs, paving the way for the future of online living. Big Tech is at the helm, but the passengers can still rock the shuttle. We are laying the groundwork today that will define the direction of the internet and nonphysical community for years to come. Know when to innovate and when to wait.
Social media doesn’t kill us—but it’s not neutral. Emojis won’t kill us either—but neither are they harmless.