Facebook only used to know whether or not you “liked” something, or, rather, whether or not you found something worthy of your attention enough to pass that information along to others. For years, many lobbied unsuccessfully for a dislike button. How often, after all, have you felt awkward “liking” a post about a sad or depressing topic? At long last Facebook relented. But instead of feeling all the feels, Facebook now wants you to feel just some of them.
About a month ago, Facebook released a redesigned “like” feature, with the addition of animated emoji to represent 5 additional emotions. Now, in addition to liking something, you can love (heart) it or react with haha, wow, sad, or angry emoji.
With the new reactions, we can now sort our attention into discrete categories. This allows Facebook to fine tune our attention and interest. Now, the company can distinguish between the things we like, love, things that excite us, and things that inspire anger. But, only these things. You still can’t indicate mixed emotions. And, oddly, you still can’t express “dislike.” You can only express things that are in the range of the predetermined responses that Facebook gives us. Our nuanced and often cloudy emotional responses are flattened and compartmentalized into distinct “Reactions.” What we usually call our “mixed feelings” are deemed redundant and removed. After all,according to Facebook’s own PR team, the goal of Reactions is to keep Facebook happy and positive and to show and spread those happy feelings (read: posts) with others.
In actuality, Reactions are a way for Facebook to develop more sophisticated algorithms to filter content and sell ads. The algorithm will feed you less “Sad” and more “Wow” so that you stick around. Happy people, studies show, share and post more. Dominic Pettman writes that “the PowerPoint Posse have figured out how to incite, tickle, and channel fleeting feelings into reliable revenue streams.” Facebook reactions are just a further demonstration of how our feelings are captured and transformed into revenue. These feelings are then incorporated and turned back upon us through algorithmic feeds and targeted ads. In effect, our fleeting feelings actually come back to haunt us.
How did we get to this idea that there are just six basic emotions anyway? And where else do we see this in popular culture?
The Disney Pixar film Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley and the five emotions in her mind (Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness) that try to guide her through the trials and tribulations of her family’s move from snowy Minnesota to tech capital San Francisco. As the story develops, we are presented with Riley’s increasing frustration and disappointment at the move while inside her head, Joy, Riley’s lead emotion, tries to manage the other emotions. When Sadness makes Riley cry in front of her class on the first day of school, Joy attempts to stop the memory of the experience (depicted as colored marbles) from being transported to long-term memory. This results in Joy and Sadness getting lost in the maze of memory and without their guidance, Riley becomes listless and depressed. The story becomes a grand adventure as Sadness and Joy attempt to make it back to the mind’s Headquarters.
Throughout the film, Joy reminds all of the other emotions to think positively and to put on a good face for Riley’s parents. The emotions attempt to quarter off Sadness as she becomes increasingly despondent and starts affecting Riley’s mood. Led by Joy and encouraged by Riley’s parents, they refuse to allow her to fully experience the sadness and loss that results from leaving life behind in Minnesota. . This emphasis on joy and positiveness, only increases Riley’s frustration which, when forced, only exacerbate Riley’s internal conflict and almost lead to the death of Joy personified towards the end of the film.
What can this popular narrative tell us about Facebook’s affect-mining ambitions? Similar to the emotions in Inside Out, Facebook has condensed the complicated and often confusing emotions people experience in their everyday lives into relatively few, distinct responses and interpretations. While Inside Out could be said to be about the emotional growth of a child, Facebook Reactions, in their quest to convey emotions as discrete and universal, can be thought of as infantalizing all of us. And Facebook does not present us with a way to mix emotions, unlike Inside Out, where the resolution of the plot comes in the realization that Riley’s experiences can be saturated with complicated and mixed feelings (the multi-colored memory marbles).
In fact, Facebook enlisted the help of the same psychologist who consulted for the development of Inside Out! One of the stronger elements of the film was its painting of Sadness as a necessary component to the human experience, not something to be quartered off and shunned, unlike the algorithms which will filter out the things we find disheartening.
According to one of the design directors at Facebook, Reactions needed had two necessary criteria: universality and expressiveness. The emotions needed to be cross-cultural so that they would work everywhere Facebook is used, and they needed to be expressive, accurately conveying an appropriate emotional response. Through this, Facebook seeks not only to limit the types of reactions we can have to content, but also streamlines and universalizes the experience of it.
As Robbie Gonazales writes on Wired “not only, then, do we not want negativity directed at ourselves, but we also don’t want to level it at others. In that light, Reactions make much more sense. They may not reflect the world in which we live, but they’re a good deal closer to the one we want.” So the world we apparently want is one free from negativity – where our online experiences are filtered so that anything we React to with disgust or sadness is algorithmically disappeared. And Facebook is only happy to oblige and give us a world (the world mediated through Facebook anyway) without sadness or loneliness, even if that loneliness might be exacerbated by these media. As Pettman reminds us, “social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”