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Reactions: New weapons in the digital arms race

Assistant Director of Convergent Media Nathan Carpenter weighs in on the new changes coming to Facebook.

A long-time family friend recently passed away from a prolonged fight with cancer. The months and weeks before she died her husband posted updates on Facebook about chemo treatments, increasingly pessimistic prognoses, and finally the decision to begin hospice care. Each post came with the following caveat: “This is not the sort of update that one can like, but if you do we’ll take it to mean you’re supporting us with your thoughts and prayers.”

As many of us have experienced, Facebook’s “Like” button can put us into awkward situations: Expressing agreement, appreciation, empathy, sympathy, or solidarity with just one button can send mixed signals. If I had liked my friend’s posts without his caveat, it could have appeared as though I liked the fact that his wife’s cancer was advancing.

People have been petitioning Facebook for a “dislike” button for years to help avoid these situations, and I have had more than my share of Facebook posts that I have wanted to dislike. But when recent reports emerged that Facebook’s dislike button will soon become a reality, my first thoughts went to other social networking platforms that also utilize ranking systems: Reddit and YikYak.

Reddit is a discussion forum that often allows users to upvote and downvote posts. Posts with many upvotes rise to the top of the page and are seen by more people, whereas posts with many downvotes drop to the bottom of the page, where they lie in obscurity. YikYak is an anonymous networking site that allows users to upvote and downvote posts, but as soon as a YikYak post receives more than 5 downvotes it is deleted and removed from the larger community conversation altogether. Users of both Reddit and YikYak have been known to use the downvote as a weapon to silence enemies and other users they disagree with. Would a “dislike” button on Facebook produce a similar digital arms race?

Facebook seems to be cognizant of this problem. Contrary to media hype, reports show that Facebook isn’t introducing a “dislike” button after all, but rather is testing a range of emotional responses users can choose from, including “Love,” “Haha,” “Yay,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Angry.”  The choice of this range of reactions is strategic on Facebook’s part for two reasons.

First, Facebook is supported by advertising and needs to maintain a positive and affirmative atmosphere in order to keep potential advertising clients coming back to the platform. Notice that there are twice as many new buttons with positive emotions as there are new buttons with negative emotions.

Second, by introducing a range of reaction buttons, Facebook is creating new variables and data points that it can mine for information about users and their interests, attitudes, and sentiment toward various topics, issues, companies, and products. When you use a “Like” button, Facebook can only tell that you have a connection to a particular post, but not necessarily the nature of that connection. With a “Love” or “Angry” button Facebook will soon be able to tell that you have a strong emotional reaction to a post, a reaction that can be factored into its algorithms to provide more targeted advertising.

With the introduction of a new range of reaction buttons on Facebook, many Facebook users will be getting what they want: a way to do more than simply “like” a post. If these new buttons are successful, however, the biggest beneficiary will be Facebook.

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