Last year, Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, sent a document to a team of Facebook researchers called “Mapping the Hierarchy of Emotional Reactions.” Facebook was working on expanding its iconic like button to help users express a wider range of emotional responses, and it had enlisted Keltner—an emotions expert who also consulted on Pixar’s Inside Out—to help feel its way along. Keltner told Facebook that scientists recognize more than 20 basic emotions that are “communicated in the face or voice or both,” including shame, guilt, disgust, fear, relief, sympathy, and contempt, plus many more “subordinate” emotional states that describe “more specific” variations. Anger, for instance, can be expressed as irritability or rage. Pixar illustrator Matt Jones, who also worked on Inside Out, drew several dozen emotionally accurate emoticons to help bring each feeling to life. The “sulky” emoticon sticks out its bottom lip and turns its eyes to the ceiling. The one for “disagreement” narrows its eyes and turns the corner of its mouth down ever so slightly.
On Wednesday, Facebook rolled out its final set of emotional responses. It calls them “reactions.” In a piece published last month in Bloomberg Businessweek, Facebook emphasized the scientific underpinnings of the new venture. As reporter Sarah Frier put it, the team “consulted with outside sociologists about the range of human emotion, just to be safe.” In addition to the classic like, users can now also signal love, haha, wow, sad, and angry in their reactions to a post. And that’s it—no sulking, no disagreement, no contempt, no shame.
“As a scientist, I’m always seeking a faithful representation of what people are really experiencing,” Keltner says. “I wish Facebook could include all of the emotions, so users could show their disgust or signal that they’re embarrassed. Fear would be really cool. I even lobbied for a ‘sympathy’ reaction that’s even more specific than ‘sadness.’ ” But Facebook isn’t in the business of scientific exploration. Says Keltner: “They’re constrained by the size of a smartphone.”
The new reactions aren’t designed to help users express how they really feel. They function more like patches for all those times when a like seems insufficient or inappropriate. “When I see that my friend got engaged to her college sweetheart, I can ‘like’ that, and that’s fine, but what I really want to do is say that I ‘love’ that that happened,” says Sammi Krug, the project manager for the reactions feature. “And on the opposite end of the spectrum, when I see that a friend from home’s family pet of 17 years has passed away, that’s a prototypical example of a case where ‘liking’ that post doesn’t feel right to people.”
It’s important to Facebook that its users know exactly what reaction “feels right” in every situation. A dislike button, Businessweek reported, was “rejected on the grounds that it would sow too much negativity.” (Does my friend dislike climate change, or dislike my post about climate change, or dislike me?) And though the platform originally mulled releasing an additional button it called yay—a smiling yellow face with contentedly closed eyes and flushed pink cheeks—it scrapped it before launch. Kruger says the reactions team was pushed to create “a global product” where “every single reaction is useful across all the users on Facebook” and “each and every reaction is universally understood.” Facebook began rolling out reactions to users in Spain, Ireland, Chile, Portugal, Japan, Colombia, and the Philippines this past fall before going global this week. Initial tests, Kruger says, determined that yay felt “too vague.”
That’s weird. It’s hard to imagine a more universal symbol of emotional expression than the smiley face. And after all, the like button—a thumbs-up rendered in Facebook white and blue—was not built on a universal symbol of positivity. As Brendan Koerner explained in Slate in 2003, a fist with an upturned thumb is “a crass Middle Eastern insult.” The gesture also registers as rude in Australia and Nigeria. In Germany, extending a thumb is how you count to the No. 1. The problem with yay isn’t that users don’t agree on what it means. It’s that there’s no specific reason to use it instead of the other happy-go-lucky reactions: love, haha, or the old-fashioned like.
My colleague Will Oremus wrote on Wednesday that the expansion of the like button can help Facebook “start to gather much more nuanced data on how users are reacting to any given post.” Include too many options, and that utility fades. If it’s not clear why users would choose a yay reaction over a love reaction, then the data is meaningless. Facebook’s business model relies on aggregating and interpreting data on a massive scale, so it makes sense to focus on developing behaviors that can be understood in the aggregate.
In doing so, Facebook is fighting against the tide of Internet culture. Online creators now make their marks by filming reaction videos, cutting and posting reaction GIFs, and roasting or remixing original works. The vast emoji keyboard allows us to create new meanings for obscure glyphs, a la the Japanese eggplant emoji that’s evolved into a symbiotic stand-in for a penis, or the newly released “thinking face” emoji that’s quickly been repurposed as a tool for casting shade. Last year, Twitter rolled out a new “quote tweet” feature that showcases replies as their own statements—it’s less about engaging in conversation and more about stepping on someone else’s tweet and repurposing it. And in contrast to Facebook’s slim pickings, the office chat product Slack allows users to access the complete emoji keyboard, and even make their own emoji. The endless options encourage puns, inside jokes, and emotional communication that feels more heartfelt because each emoji is individually, carefully selected.
Facebook’s limited set of responses feels strangely more constricting than the solitary like button. The Facebook like, the Instagram heart, and the Twitter fave (recently rebranded as a like, too) are all just sunny euphemisms for a gesture of generalized acknowledgement. The like button was a nod. It said: “I see you.” Maybe it was meant to mean “I like the content of this post,” but it often felt like “I like you.” But the additional responses complicate that reading. Now a simple like risks feeling like: “I like this, but I don’t love it.” Or: “I acknowledge you’ve made a joke, but I won’t pretend it made me laugh.” Or “I know I have the option to signal that I’m sad about your dog dying, but I’m inconsiderate or dastardly enough to just like it anyway.”
Researchers like Keltner are still puzzling out what it means to “react” emotionally online. One possibility is that Facebook users are “expressing a feeling they’re actually feeling” when they send a sad face or a laughing one to a friend. But it’s also possible that the symbol is just “a referential expression,” Keltner says. It says: “I recognize that what you’ve done could produce this feeling, but I don’t necessarily feel it.” So, “if someone posts that they haven’t turned in their taxes, I might respond with an expression of fear even if I don’t feel fear,” Keltner says. “It means that I recognize that it’s a fearful situation.”
Perhaps that means that reactions will end up meaning next to nothing. When you look at a recent post, you’ll see a count of the total number of Reactions and likes: the raw number of people who responded to your little joke or tortured confession. The sheer number of reactions is elevated above their emotional content. When you receive a crying symbol or a laughing one on a post, you may not even notice which of your friends has expressed sadness or delight. All that matters is how many people have recognized you.