TechnologyHow will Facebook’s "reactions" play with our emotions?
From "Wow" to "Sad", Facebook is testing its new post-like "reactions." We asked a psychologist, a sociologist, and a tech theorist why they are doing this to us and how it might affect our feelings.
It's creepy how much time we all spend on Facebook. But perhaps, what's even creepier is how Facebook reacts to our obsession, seemingly bating us into more Facebooking with likes, apps and now, reactions - "Like," "Love," "Haha," "Yay," "Wow," "Sad" and "Angry" and complimentary emojis.
Last year, Facebook's "Emotional Contagion" study showed that emotions we express online are contagious to our "friends." Facebook learned this by secretly manipulating the feeds of 600,000 users and the amounts of negative and positive posts they see. The study was called unethical, flawed and contradictory to Facebook's own privacy guidelines. Yet, many companies often study their users in similar ways.
While this feature has only so far had a trial roll out in Ireland and Spain, we got some friends from abroad to send us screen shots from their heightened social networking experience.
What does is it say about Facebook that they would provide these options? We showed these images to a psychologist, a sociologist, and a tech theorist to find out how this may affect us. We're sure Facebook is studying this as well.
Kathleen M. Cumiskey
Associate Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island CUNY
In reference to the expansion of emoji use on Facebook, I know from my research that some Facebook users are emotionally invested in their activities on Facebook. Often people's use of the "like" button has caused miscommunication and even emotional distress for some because of its ambiguous nature. When it is easy to interpret - in terms of simple evaluation of products and services (i.e. I "like" Oreos), people tend to understand its intent. However for more nuanced and complicated responses via the "like" button can be kinda confusing (i.e. giving the thumbs up to someone reporting they got into a car accident). With the expansions of emojis comes the acknowledgement that some people are using social media to communicate aspects of their emotional selves. Social and mobile media users engage in mobile-emotive use of their technology. Mobile-emotive, a term that Larissa Hjorth and I have used in our work, is a type of mobile media use whereby users utilize digital content to express their emotional selves.
Facebook's motivation for expanding the emojis are probably two-fold: Facebook has a large research department that views access to Facebook use as a large Petri dish to study human behavior and the expansion of the use of emojis may be valuable as a revenue stream to sell to advertisers and marketers.
Postdoctoral Associate, Department of Sociology, New York University, formerly Information
Society Project at Yale Law School; research fellow at Columbia J-School's Tow Center
What's most interesting to me about this is the question of what Facebook is going to do with all the new analytics that will result from people using these emoji to react to posts. Specifically, how is this going to shape the algorithm that determines which posts users see in their newsfeed? I'd guess that one of Facebook's motivations for introducing these emoji was to better understand -- and capitalize on -- the relationship between emotion (more accurately, users' self-professed-via-an-emoji emotion) and online sharing. There's a growing academic literature on this subject, and it seems to indicate that liking something online is not the only predictor of sharing it. For instance, this analysis of the NY Times most-emailed list by researchers at UPenn found positive stories were more likely to appear on the list than negative ones (which we might expect). But the researchers also found also that stories that elicited high emotional arousal -- even if it was negative (e.g., disgust, anger) -- were more likely to appear on most-emailed than those that elicited a more passive reaction. Facebook's thumbs-up button was too limited to be able to capture these complexities, but the new emoji indicate that the company is trying to move in that direction. Granted, the UPenn results may not be generalizable to Facebook (the NYT most-emailed list is an unusual sample for a bunch of reasons). But if it turns out to be true that, say, rage-inducing content is highly viral on Facebook, maybe we'll start seeing angrier newsfeeds.
Artist, focused on software & computational agency. Creator of Facebook Demetricator,
ScareMail, Computers Watching Movies. Asst Prof, UIUC Art + Design & NCSA
As I've found and argued with previous projects, the quantification of friend reactions on Facebook has profound effects on the site's users. Seeing how many "likes" we got ties right into our capitalism-inspired desire for more. The Facebook interface uses that desire to encourage increased content production. The news feed algorithm teaches us that more "likes" gets us better visibility, and thus influences what we write (and don't write) on the site. Quantifications of those "likes" can lead to feelings of competition and anxiety, and ultimately, change how we interact with others.
Given all of this, I find it interesting that Facebook is creating so many new "reaction" options while avoiding the one so many have clamored for: a "dislike." Why not provide what users have asked for? The value of Facebook (to its shareholders) is based on its ability to sell users to advertisers. All of these new reaction options—each with its accompanying metric—will further refine Facebook's advertising profile of their users. The quantifications of those "reactions" will encourage increased user content production as users clamor to excel in the new metric evaluations. "Loves" will become the new "likes"—but excelling in both "likes" and "loves" will be better.
The number of "likes" influences what we write in the status box. The quantified aspect of these new "reactions" will further complicate the picture of how Facebook's interface prescribes our social interactions on the site.
Cover image: Screengrab, Facebook