It’s complicated

Posted on September 18, 2015


Facebook has announced that they’re working on an alternative to the ‘like’ button. But is there a single button, a single word, that can contain the spectrum of negative human emotion?

For a while, September 15 was like any other day. Large numbers of Indians, unsurprisingly, celebrated Engineer’s Day. Fans of old-fashioned murder mysteries remembered it as the 125th birthday of Agatha Christie. It was also the day CN Annadurai was born, though the tributes and commemorations seemed to be in a lower key than usual. A few classic rock aficionados whipped out their Pink Floyd albums and wished Richard Wright were still here – the keyboardist/vocalist departed, this day, to the dark side of the moon. So far, so usual. And then it happened. Millions felt the earth as they knew it shift on its axis a little. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced that the company was working on an alternative to the ‘like’ button. “I think people have asked about the ‘dislike’ button for many years,” he said, with a slight (and knowing) smile. “Today is a special day, because today is the day we actually get to say we’re working on it.”

At least one subset of Facebook users was punching the air. Finally, you could let the world know what you really feel about that eight-hundred-and-seventh puppy picture within the span of a week. Or maybe not. Facebook would break down if people were ruthlessly honest, just like society would self-destruct if we went about our lives without sugar-coating. It would become… asocial media. But on the face of it, an alternative to the ‘like’ button does seem necessary. It’s hard to ‘like’ a post carrying a link to an article about the Hungarian riot police using tear gas and water cannons on migrants at the country’s border. What you’re saying is: I like the fact that you’ve brought this important news to my attention. But that’s not what people are hearing. Because of our traditional definitions of ‘like,’ what you seem to be saying is: I like the fact that the Hungarian riot police is using tear gas and water cannons on migrants. To avoid confusion, you might have to comment on the post – something like “This is so sad,” followed by a frowny. But that would take a few extra seconds, and the whole purpose of ‘buttonising’ emotions is lost. At least in this case, a ‘dislike’ button sounds like a great idea.

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Or does it? A ‘like’ is easier to understand than a ‘dislike.’ When you like a post, you’re saying a limited number of things: This baby picture brightened up my morning. Or: I’m in a different country, and I’m glad you posted this picture so I could see your baby. Or: I like the way you’ve photographed this baby. Or just: Awwww. But if you ‘dislike’ something on a forum where everyone knows who you are, you’re not being very clear. Were you just trolling? Or were you in a crabby mood? Did you disagree with the content of the post, or was it the way it was being expressed? Or do you agree with everything and are using the ‘dislike’ button simply to express your frustration about those migrants? The way society has evolved, you don’t have to explain positive feelings, but negative emotions need to be clarified in order to avoid pointy-fingered judgement. After all, nobody wants to be seen as a bad person – or worse, a troll – especially among friends (even if they are only Facebook friends).

But Facebook, it must be said, doesn’t actively encourage trolling. The ‘dislike’ button isn’t exactly the downvote button you see on blogs and at the bottom of articles on news sites. Those buttons merely indicate, through a counter, the number of people who did not care for what was being said (or who were just trolling). You don’t have to log in, or even if you do, you can call yourself Charlie Hebdo – so it’s just a faceless mass of downturned thumbs. Facebook, on the other hand, is a ‘closed’ environment. It allows you to see the person expressing the opinion, because that person has to be your (Facebook) friend. Click on the ‘like’ button, and you get the list of likers – their names, alongside their profile pictures. So too for the proposed ‘dislike’ button – if someone wants to express their dislike, they’ll have to stand up and show their face first, and this creates a level of accountability. You own up to your action. You’ll ‘dislike’ something only if you have a strong-enough reason to do so, and maybe you’ll even explain your stand and continue the conversation. That goes beyond simple trolling.

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But even so, it’s going to be interesting to see how Facebook implements this proposal. Even Zuckerberg knows it’s complicated. An instant after alluding to the ‘dislike’ button,  he clarified that it wasn’t just a ‘dislike’ button. “We don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts… What they really want is to express empathy. Not every moment is a good moment. And if you are sharing something that is sad… or if a family member passed away, then it may not feel comfortable to ‘like’ that post… so I do think it is important to give more options than just ‘like’ as a quick way to emote and share their feelings on a post.” The appropriate response to the news of a family’s member’s demise is certainly not ‘like’ – but what is the alternative? ‘Like’ is sufficient to suggest a positive feeling, but is there a single button, a single word, that can contain the spectrum of negative human emotion? With his announcement, Zuckerberg has made us all think seriously about a question whose answer we thought we’d learned as kids: What is the opposite of ‘like’?

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Posted in: Op-ed, Society