Here at Pulling on the Push Door, we try and get a variety of perspectives, and we love having guest authors. This post is written by friend of the blog, Sarah Troxel! Please comment with your own perspective and thoughts.
We don’t get to choose our operating systems. When we were born we didn’t design Facebook as our primary means of social networking. Our technology’s designers have control over our lives. You can say you are exempt because you choose to opt out. Maybe you have a boycott against Apple or have deleted your Facebook. But that doesn’t mean you are exempt from its control over the world around you. Technology impacts our social environment and consequently, the way we operate in the world.
On the 24th of February, Facebook added a feature to its “like” button. Now, users can choose: “like,” “love,” “haha”, “wow,” “sad,” or “angry.” While there is nothing I can do to reverse this, I want to bring awareness about the changes that will occur in our lives by sharing several reasons why I am frustrated. They all link back to a loss of autonomy.
First off, simply from a linguistic perspective, the feature is inconsistent and clunky. We currently use “like” as both a verb and a noun. Saying, “I’m going to go like that status,” and “I got 54 likes on this photo” are equally appropriate. Now, the set of six options includes two verbs (“like” and “love”) two exclamations (“haha” and “wow”) and two adjectives (“sad” and “angry”). We will need to decide as a linguistic community how we will use our new terms. Will we say, “I got two angries on my status,” or “I haha-ed that picture yesterday”…? That is for us to decide; but mind you, we did not choose the material we are working with.
In the past few years, the use of comment feature has begun to dwindle. When I first got a Facebook, people routinely commented one or two word reactions to my pictures and statuses. Today, I am thrilled (I confess) if I simply get a high quantity of likes. I am not saying that commenting has entirely gone by the wayside or even that traditional “words” are inherently better. A well-chosen emoji can communicate more meaning than a sentence and qualifies as a “word” in that sense. But the new six-faceted feature makes it easier for people to limit themselves in communication. Essentially what we are getting is an efficated six-emoji feature. But the catch is that by choosing the new feature, the autonomy goes out of the emoji. If I see a “haha” (with the creepy squinty face) on my picture, I will not think “wow, this person really thought about what they wanted to express and which emoji best communicates that.” No, now I know you simply chose the only suitable option that the function gave you.
The strangest thing about all of this social reordering is that it goes against what the designers intended. The idea is to make social interaction safer. As in the previous example, the autonomy of choosing your own emoji, let alone crafting sentences (gasp!), carries some social risk. Your comment can be left to interpretation, and you bear the responsibility for your choice. Designers simplify interaction in an effort to make it safe; in the simplified system, the designer carries the responsibility for the interaction. Yet despite all strivings for safety, the huge irony is that it does not make us safer; it makes us more vulnerable. When we don’t take responsibility for our communication, we subject ourselves to the third party of the operating system and further hinder our efforts to be understood. It’s like playing an electronic game of telephone, where our communications may at any time be misunderstood. Now, when you “angry” my status, I will spend days stressing out about whether you are somehow sympathizing with me, or whether you carry resentful feelings toward me. This interaction is not “safer”; it has only exponentially increased social anxiety. We have lost control of the communication.
The other irony is that this was an effort to increase choice. We want options. Facebook users were frustrated that the only (quick-and-easy) option was a “like.” For a few years, people discussed the potential for a “dislike” button. Now, Facebook has not only given us a dichotomy, it has graciously given us six choices! We will no longer be limited to a simplistic, positive reaction! But the tragedy is that we are more limited than ever. Human emotion in communication has been boiled down to a six-outlet system. While we may not begin to lose our distinction between “wonderstruck” and “dismayed” in our simple “wow,” we will be limited in regards to how we receive the emotions of others.
I “sad” this. Maybe two months from now I will forget that I was so frustrated. Adaption comes quickly. Maybe I will learn I was wrong, and this new feature will actually give me a better understanding of my friends’ emotions. But I do know it will influence the way we operate with each other, and I know we will have had no control over it.
I apologize if I have made you more anxious. Now that we have the feature, elaborated protests will help nothing. We must make ourselves aware of what happened and do our best to use the system to communicate in an accurate and compassionate manner.
So before you leave feeling like a helpless victim of the system, I want to provide seven suggestions to help give us back our autonomy as we move forward:
- Don’t freak out about the linguistic change. This kind of thing happens all the time. Soon we’ll be saying “I totally wow-ed what I learned in Physics today” like it’s old news.
- Continue to use the old-fashioned emoji. The recent “sticker” feature also provides a great opportunity to use your autonomy and express unique reactions.
- Actively comment. The risk you take by putting a name to your words is worth the richness of human interaction. If someone shares about their grandpa’s funeral, don’t leave your response to a simple “sad,” but comment in consolation or tell them you care.
- Do not use the “angry” button in any context where it will be perceived as hostile. This is irresponsible and a cheap way of avoiding constructive conflict. If you want to disagree with someone, do so with a thoughtful argument in the comment section. The only reason to use “angry” is to sympathize with someone else’s anger at injustice or unrighteousness.
- Give charity in your interpretation. Don’t over-analyze the six different reactions. If your future mother-in-law clicks “sad” on your engagement announcement, assume she means that she is crying happy tears.
- Engage in face-to-face conversation. In the end, I am not proposing a boycott of the new system. But if we don’t want to be limited by it, we must go beyond it. It is okay to compassionately “angry” someone’s post about systematic racism, but take the initiative and ask them to elaborate on their thoughts when you see them in person. Let us not allow ourselves to live in a simplified online world that can’t bleed into our physical relationships.
- Tell me what you think. I will enjoy three comments on this article more than three-hundred “sads.”