Scrolling through the Facebook news feed can be an emotional roller coaster ride. Life and death, tragedy and comedy all flow across our screens at a scale and scope that isn’t really possible to consciously absorb, let alone respond to adequately.
A year or so ago, Facebook added ‘Reactions’ to its vocabulary of responses. Prior to the ‘Reactions’ rollout we could reply to a post by simply liking or commenting. If a post particularly moved you, or resonated, it could also be shared to your own newsfeed, a high-value move in the Facebook algorithm hierarchy.
‘Reactions’ were designed as an extension of the ‘like’ button, and you receive a notification when they’re used, in the same way you are notified about likes on a post. If fans and followers use them your engagement rates go up.
The ‘Reactions’ lexicon includes six different animated emojis meant to express Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad or Angry. In May, for Mother’s Day, a purple flower was added to express ‘thankfulness’. Keep your eyes open on your newsfeed because rumour has it that the ‘thankfulness’ flower may become a permanent emoji.
This month, Facebook announced, “We believe in building a platform that supports all communities. So we’re celebrating love and diversity this Pride by giving you a special reaction.” June is the month when LGBTQ community around the world celebrates Pride, so a rainbow flag emoji is currently available.
The ‘Reactions’ emojis were Facebook’s response to users reporting the awkwardness in having only the ‘like’ button as an option when responding to difficult or negative posts, for example, posts about the death of a loved one.
In the announcement, Facebook product manager Sammi Krug said, “When people come to Facebook, they share all kinds of different things, things that make them sad, things that make them happy, thought-provoking, angry. We kept hearing from people that they didn’t have a way to express empathy.”
So let me make a side-argument here. With or without an increased range of emoticons, expressing more nuanced emotional reactions is challenging. Compassion, empathy, tenderness, relief, anticipation – these are subtle and sometimes complex sentiments.
This is why we have art, and poetry and music, mediums that are more suited to subtlety. I’m not sure we want to use social media and the Internet to fully convey the many shades of human feeling and expression. Artificial Intelligence is already in wide and common use. Can artificial emotional intelligence be far behind?
Facebook’s attempt to solve this problem through the ‘Reactions’ feature has some benefits, but I fear simple emoji reactions may further reduce the scope of our ability to truly express our more difficult human reactions.
As it is, we often find ourselves tongue-tied at important moments. We often fail to speak the words we want to say to loved ones before it is too late. We are prone to hide what we really feel. Skillfully learning to articulate emotional range can take a lifetime. Are we at risk at becoming even less skillful by relegating our emotional responses to a heart, flower or flag?