No. Facebook is not issuing a dislike button. Josh Constine has a pretty good review of the actual text of Zuck’s statement. Of course the story of the dislike button made for some fantastic clickbait, just as the story of a legitimate creeper function (a report on who has searched for you) might. The appeal of the story is pretty clear, Facebook is a widely used but some what maligned app supported by network effects that are impossible to duplicate, here is a new feature that you want but never though you would get. In reality, Facebook is proposing something much more like a neutral button. If one thinks of the like button as holding a positive valence, it might seem strange to click like in response to emotionally difficult news. As such a button that provides support in the same way that a like button does but has some other surface meaning could be useful.
First, a new button is not necessary.
Users generally know that a ‘like’ does not have the strongly positive valence that is assumed in the use case for creating the button. Ask teenagers, liking is as complicated as hanging-out. The surface meaning of the term is not really that important to the use of the button. In this sense, the users have already repurposed the architecture to suit their needs. An entire paradigm of media studies research takes this creativity to an ontological level. User creativity is a very real thing. Unplanned use and tacit knowledge are the stuff of real innovation. The only people who take the surface layer of Facebook (and other social networks) very seriously are newspaper editors, those folks who still assign reporters to write stories about how Facebook can make one forget their children. As I argue in this interview, people use Facebook (and selfies) for emotional support on a regular basis. Frankly, Facebook should not be designing the interface with non-users in mind.
Second, even if it is ostensibly an empathy button, it won’t say that way.
James C. Scott described the problem with statist vision, and architectural ideas like those of Le Corbusier as a matter of not seeing everyday agency. No plan, no matter how elegant can create clearly classed zones where time is used according to strict rules. If urban planning was merely a matter of an expert telling people where, when, and what to do, we would have housing first solutions to homelessness, no traffic, and wonderful indoor super cities. At least, if Victor Gruen had been allowed to make Southdale the urban core that he had intended. Cities regularly deploy aggressive, unfriendly technologies to police the use of space and time. Metal brackets block the use of concrete for skateboarding. Spikes and rocks litter the spaces under bridges to prevent sleeping.
Zuckerberg argues that the new button won’t be an up/down voting scheme. And he may be right, it is not intended to be such, but what does Facebook really know about building a user architecture? Facebook thrived when Zynga abused the newsfeed and pushed crummy ads. Users don’t trust Facebook, they use it because they won the race to be the social network, not because Facebook was the best network.
If the users want the dislike button to be the down vote, it will become one. Or perhaps, Facebook could fall backwards into a good concept, yet again.
Third, if we have reached the point that the button retains a pure, empathetic use, it should be marked as a bad sign for Facebook.
If the users are doing what they are told, the users are not passionate. Perhaps Facebook’s business is post-passion. Communication companies traffic in intensities, a lack of creativity would suggest a lack of intensity.
Fourth, this is not to say that trolls are good, but they only go where energetic traffic is flowing. Facebook is an artifact of the culture of 2006, not a leading light.
Facebook has always been reactive. The story of Facebook is generally one of a boy genius inventing a miracle website. The reality is that Facebook entered a mature social network ecosystem where management faults at Friendster and Myspace, and the difficulty of maintaining fifty AOL instant chats, when combined with the rapid diffusion of fast internet access and mobile telephones with computers, Facebook becomes something of an inevitability. The context produces the climate for a killer app.
There is a good body of research about changing privacy and publicity norms in the mid-2000s. For those first, glowing, years, Facebook lived in a space where people freely built networks and shared interesting information. Now, burned by publicity, they have become private. Facebook pushes users to share information, to keep the feed populated with interesting content, least it go dark.
But, what if it can be an empathy button…
This is the most interesting prospect. To be true, then Zuckerberg will need to have shifted Facebook from a place for organizing parties to become a place for other emotional contact. I am skeptical of this idea. The commercial content on Facebook is off putting at best. More importantly, the happiness of Facebook makes it an appealing place to come in the first place. If successful, the dislike button could be carefully positioned to modify the affective stream and to populate a story at the right time to elicit the most positive feedback. In this sense the future of the button would not even be empathy, but granularity. This cuts back to the problem of agency. The user, not the designer drives the use of the software. Designers who constrain too much alienate their users, those who design to little confuse them.
Just as the scientific rationality of Le Corbusire, the emotional rationality of Facebook implies that emotions need to be legible. Yet, the emotions that are sublimated in the like are polysemic and polyvocal — they mean many things from many perspectives at the same time said in several voices. There may be some at Facebook who beleive that their success came as a result of constraining the interface options presented by Myspace. This idea would be in error, becoming legible is not a strategy for emotional survival for Facebook. danah boyd has argued persuasively that this aesthetic surface presents other cultural codes about race and class. Facebook’s under-design because “clean and simple.” Although this is posed as an answer to an argument, it does suggest that above all that Facebook is subject to the legibility conditions between cultures. Here are some clean lines:
Emotions are unruly, so is the like button. A recurring theme for Scott in his critique of high-modernism, the Soviet-Harvard axis, is that planners mistake the aesthetic of science for the implementation of specific contextual knowledge to the production of ends. Science is not a transcendental function. The circular fields of dry, western agriculture won’t work where the wells can’t reach water. Bedrock with poor soil? Not as much. Context counts. This is also true of the design of information systems and interfaces. Avail yourself of Google +. A perfect interface designed in a circular, high-modern style translates into failure. Facebook seems to be modulated by a different affect from Twitter. Sadists swarm to a public shaming or a canard to repeat. Dick Costolo, before his departure, made the implementation of new technologies to prevent swarms on Twitter a priority. Harassing Zelda Williams after the death of her father was a watershed moment. Twitter was intended to be a self-regulating emotional public sphere. The opposite of Facebook. This too is driven by the will of the users more than the designs of network planners. Unruly emotions are the cause.
The button will be a success if people use it, and if they use it it will be for their own reasons. Mark Z’s intentions aside. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine ways of using this new empathy button for purposes other than expression condolences for a loss…that is, if the high-modern planners of Facebook even understand the everyday emotional legibility of Facebook users in the first place. Maybe this is why Microsoft Research exists….