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How far will Facebook go?

8 December 2013 By Jake Ulick, Columnist No Comments

Facebook “hackathons”—night-long coding sessions where Facebook engineers go to work on prototype-like projects that they wouldn’t normally have time to pursue during normal work hours—have produced many groundbreaking staples of our daily social media experience that we now have probably come to take for granted.

Such “innovations” include the timeline version of the profile page, Facebook chat, the friend suggester and, of course, the seminal “Like” button.

At a company event this past Thursday—Facebook’s Compassion Research Day—researchers from Yale, UC Berkley and Facebook gathered to discuss their findings from studies regarding online human behavior trends at which a recent hackathon-generated idea was presented: the “Sympathize” button.

The company says that the hypothetical button would be available instead of the Like button on statuses in which a user designates a negative emotion from Facebook’s list of emoticon feelings.

While this idea isn’t completely out of the question, a Facebook spokesman told the Huffington Post this: “But we made a decision that it was not exactly the right time to launch that product. Yet.” The reason for not going ahead with the project just yet, being whatever it may, I’m sure this is something that will manifest itself soon enough in a new feature representing desires for such customized responses to statuses like the long awaited and coveted “Dislike” button that for whatever reason hasn’t come yet.

But a Sympathize button…what would that mean for Facebook users and the social media experience?

Probably an extension of what the Like button allowed: the ability to show your support for a cause, express musical/artistic tastes and political preferences, and to interact in a rather strange way with other Facebook “friends.”

This interaction with other users via the Like button is rather peculiar in the sense that it can be used to represent a wide array of emotions and responses.

We may “like” something because we can relate to it, appreciate it, or agree with it. We may also “like” something that someone else we know posts simply just to acknowledge him or her and their active online expression.

But when someone posts something with a sad, defiant or negative connotation to it we still may “like” it a) to show them support and that we’re “there” for them but b) because that’s the only other means by which we can show acknowledgement without direct confrontation (which for Facebook I would consider as sending a private message or posting an actual comment on the user’s status). And we all know that there are different situations where maybe we don’t feel completely comfortable sending a message or publically addressing someone for everyone else to see so we default to the Like button.

The feature allows users to express similarities in preferences and appreciation for shared ideas and content but also to show support in a manner that sits between the extremes of “I’m commenting because I’m your best friend and I care about you” and “We’re friends on Facebook but I really don’t know who you are besides the fact that you play Candy Crush, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and we went to school near each other.”

The Like button is what social critics would consider the essence of desensitized online human interaction. But surprisingly (except not really), studies have shown (and we can all say from personal experience) that receiving Likes on a picture or post actually induces positive emotions.

We feel connected, recognized, and, well, liked when people “like” our posts.

A Sympathize button would be more than just another option to click.

It would represent a more nuanced and complex approach to social media interaction; one where we can better clarify what we mean without having to say anything at all.

Of course the downside, especially in my cynical opinion, is that it would further normalize and encourage the act of letting everyone online know intimate details about your life or worse…completely irrelevant and mundane details about your life that are all too characteristic of my (and I’m sure everyone else’s) Newsfeed.

I can’t help but draw a parallel between this and the book I’m currently reading, The Circle by David Eggers in which the main character, Mae gets a job with the premier social media company in the author’s fictitious but eerily accurate Silicon Valley—The Circle, which is basically a hybrid of Facebook and Google.

The company encourages its users and especially its employees to engage in hyper online social activity that is measured by a participation rank judging who sends the most “Zings,” wall posts, and frowns or smiles. This book, in my opinion, is recommended reading for anyone living in the 21st century, old or young, because it perfectly portrays the merits and pitfalls of online interaction and communicating using binary terms such as “smile” or “frown,” “Like,” or “Sympathize.”

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