The Twitterati were abuzz earlier this week when the social-networking service replaced the star (which denoted "favorite," according to the company) with a heart (“like”). Their angst prompted a semiintense debate and more than a few get-a-life interjections from people who said, correctly, that the world has more important things to worry about.
While I'm among those who think Twitter made a mistake—I'll suggest an easy fix in a minute—I also think the situation reminds us of an issue that's genuinely important: namely the reality that you and I aren't much more than pawns in the operations of the giant, centralized enterprises that we use every day to communicate.
Here's part of how Twitter explained the icon shift on its blog:
We are changing our star icon for favorites to a heart and we’ll be calling them likes. We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.
That cleared up nothing, because as some of the service's most devoted users observed, people have been using the star symbol for a variety of things, only one of which was Twitter's official notation. Journalist Alex Howard pointed out that Twitter had reduced an ecosystem of meaning to a single word. Twitter's former head of news, Vivian Schiller, wrote: “Sorry Twitter, but i used the 'favorite' button in ways that did not always mean 'like'. So...now what?"
Indeed, people had used the star symbol in highly functional ways, not just to express admiration. They'd “favorite” a tweet to mark items they wanted to come back to later or acknowledge the original, among many other uses listed in a 2014 academic paper Howard cited. As Will Oremus pointed out on Future Tense after the study came out, the 25 reasons for favoriting also included “it was an accident” and “the tweeter was famous.”
I was never able to be this mentally flexible and used the star symbol exactly once, to highlight something a former colleague said that truly was a favorite thing. But I'd always wanted something better, namely a checkmark that would serve several purposes, especially “noted” and “save for later.”
For people who can't wrap their brains around giving multiple meanings to the heart icon, clever programmers have already restored the star icon, albeit in a limited way, by creating a browser plug-in that replaces the heart. But it works only in your local browser and is irrelevant to others.
In a way, this discussion is Facebook's doing, because the dominant social network made the “like” button so integral years ago. Facebook's goal was twofold: to add a signaling system for users but more (in my opinion) to spread the button around the Web, making it nearly ubiquitous, so Facebook could track people everywhere. But even Facebook has admitted that like doesn’t always apply, which is why it is experimenting with emoji-based reactions.
Twitter isn't the only centralized operation to raise some users' eyebrows lately. Slack, the collaborative messaging service, changed the way the tilde (~) character functioned on its platform, removing what users considered an irony indicator and replacing it with a "strikethrough" of the text. Oh, the humanity ...
Much more important in all this is the reality that Twitter and Facebook and other centralized services are in a position to make such decisions in the first place. They can change the nature of our conversations, because they own the platforms. They are working harder and harder to reduce the wider Web—and email and independent applications and services—to afterthoughts, no longer the once-vibrant and decentralized ecosystem for communicating, assembling, and innovating.
They can do so because you and I have ceded our own choices to them, apart from the binary use-or-not decision we make when we sign up. So when I ask Twitter to add the checkmark, I'm a supplicant, not a customer. In a world where we own less and less and get a mere license to use more and more, that's our role. We need to reverse course, and soon.