It’s the year 2045. The robots are here. They do the chores but they also threaten to indenture the human race, so that sucks. Friends returning from Mars get your carpets all red and dusty. But that’s alright, the robots will take care of it. Not before reminding you of their plans of world domination, though.
Surprisingly, those aren’t the worst of your problems. Your favorite social network Facebook now has more than just a “Like” button. There’s also “Dislike,” “Empathize,” “Detest,” “Umm…not sure how I feel about this one; it’s such a complex issue,” and many other options to fit your many moods. Studies reveal that the average transhuman now spends a fourth of his life obsessing over which the most appropriate button to choose is.
Welcome to the future. You asked for it.
A Facebook “Dislike” button has been the subject of much debate ever since the “Like” button made it onto the social network back in 2007. After years of dismissing the idea, Mark Zuckerberg finally switched up his canned response for: “we’re thinking about it,” at a recent Q&A. The admission has understandably ushered another period of speculation about what the future of buttons on the website may be.
What’s clear now is that it isn’t quite going to be a “Dislike” button — how dare you try to express something as strong as dislike for anything? It’s still going to be referred to as the “Dislike” button in this article, because its intention would be to express the emotion, even if the text on the button is something more palatable. There’s also the possibility it’s the more nuanced “Sympathize” option that’s introduced. One thing’s for certain – we really need more options than just to “Like” or comment.
Any analysis of the “dislike” button needs to be prefaced with the disclaimer that even in 2015, we’re a fair ways from seeing anything of the sort go live on Facebook. Zuckerberg’s answer about it in the Q&A was more an attempt to keep Facebook in the headlines than inform us of a new feature to wrap our heads around. Be that as it may, the proposition warrants discussion, given how deeply integral the service has become to human existence.
The debate about prospective interface changes needs to take into account the fact that Facebook is many things to many people. It’s the multifaceted nature of the service that makes seemingly small changes like an additional button something to spend years getting just right.
Facebook as a social network
At its core, Facebook is still a social network – a platform using which people connect with friends and overrun their feeds with pictures of food and cars and that holiday people couldn’t care less about. Anything akin to a “dislike” button has its most fascinating implications in this use case.
The ability to express disapproval could contribute to alleviating one of the most adverse effects the social network has been shown to have – existential dissatisfaction among users. It’s a well-documented fact that Facebook makes people depressed. We may hate pictures of people’s cats and babies but it’s also making us a bit sad of the absence of cats and babies in our lives. Seeing that a picture has 90 “Likes” but also 10 “dislikes” would make for a more realistic portrayal of the world. It would communicate to viewers that cats and babies are cool, but there’s also a 10 percent chance they’re not for you. Envy would be harder to foster that way.
That said, a counterpart to the “like” button will end up becoming redundant to those who use Facebook as a social network. Humans aren’t very honest in real life. If we aren’t lying to save face or to protect people’s feelings, we’re lying because it feels so damn good. A “dislike” button is not going to goad people into any greater levels of honesty on the Internet as compared to real life.
Facebook as a News Source
It is in this context that the need for a “dislike” button makes a strong case for itself. “Liking” a post about a boy who gets arrested for bringing a clock to school wouldn’t seem like the appropriate thing to do. In such cases, people need a way to express their displeasure with something more substantial than an angry comment – like by pressing a button.
The problem with this is that Facebook factors in “Likes” when determining what kind of content to show users. Its News Feed algorithm takes into account a number of parameters, but considers content liked by users as the most explicit expression of preference. The result is that the social network shapes the way users perceive the world in many ways, even so far as contributing to election results. A “dislike” button, while handy in certain cases, may serve to accentuate the ‘filter bubble’ effect, since it will be one more way to for algorithms to take a call on what kinds of content to show users.
Facebook as a Marketing Tool
Companies that use Facebook to promote their business using targeted ads constitute an important income source for the Menlo Park-based outfit. Facebook made $3.3 billion off of ad revenues in just the first quarter of 2015. Its income channels tie in with the debate around the “dislike” button in an interesting way.
The possibility of having pictures or statuses explicitly and publicly disliked is sure to make users more prudent. This will result in fewer posts. Consequentially, there will be lesser engagement and smaller amounts of data from which to obtain insights about users. This could be catastrophic for a company that brings home the bacon with money earned selling data on user behavior.
While Facebook does need to figure out a way to let users express empathy or outrage, it has a lot more than its users’ emotions on its mind. Facebook’s investors and paying customers will likely dictate how you get to express yourself on the social network. Now that’s what you should really dislike.
Prateek Jose is a writer and engineering undergrad from India with an unhealthy obsession for obscure historical trivia. Conversations about absurdist fiction and the technological singularity make his day. He’s already uploading parts of his brain to servers by writing for websites such as this one.