Why Facebook’s Dislike button will make us emotional idiots

Ying and yang. Up and down. Turner and Hooch. Ever since the introduction of the “Like” button to Facebook in 2009, people have been asking Mark Zuckerberg for its opposite – a “Dislike” button.

Why Facebook’s Dislike button will make us emotional idiots

Now it looks like Facebook is “very close” to rolling the mechanism out. At a Q&A session at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Zuckerberg revealed that the company is working on a thumbs-down button, sort of…

“Probably hundreds of people have asked about this, and today is a special day because today is the day that I actually get to say we are working on it, and are very close to shipping a test of it,” he said.

Zuckerberg went on to say that the new button wouldn’t be for people to “down vote” other posts. Instead, the “Dislike” would be used to “express empathy” for posts with sad or unpleasant news.

Will people actually use it for this? I think so, but I also think it will make us emotional idiots.facebook_headquarters_entrance_sign_menlo_park

For a start, it’s interesting that Zuckerberg uses the word “empathy” rather than “sympathy”. The latter means to show compassion or commiseration for someone’s position, but the former means to actually project into that position, which requires a capacity to understand another person’s point of view.

For example, I can easily feel sympathy for an orphan but – being in the lucky position of never having lost both parents – feeling empathy involves me actively drawing on my own experiences to identify with that person. It is certainly possible to feel empathy, but it requires more emotional work. It is what novels do. It is what great films do. It does not necessarily come from a cursory glance and a quick press of a button. In today’s age of streamlined internet expression and assumed emotional connection, “empathy” gets thrown around as shorthand for “oh, I can see that’s bad” and “I feel your pain”, but there’s nevertheless an important distinction to make between the two words.

It could be that Zuckerberg simply mixed up words, but I think not. I think he really intends “Dislike” to be seen as an expression of empathy, even if in reality it is false empathy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Currently it feels wrong “Liking” upsetting news and, with the world being in the state it is, it doesn’t seem like bad news is going away any time soon.dn28174-1_800

Internet users long to show they care about things. Especially things they have no actual control of. With a 24-news cycle, Twitter and regular news updates, we’re constantly bombarded by negativity. Feeling helpless in the face of this is frustrating, and mechanisms such as Facebook’s “Dislike” button help us to feel connected in our sadness.

But it will do this by stripping away all the complexity of human emotion. We might see a post about a mass bombing in Pakistan, and feel heartened that 23,087 people have “Disliked” this atrocious act. We may even feel good about ourselves that we have expressed “empathy” for the situation by clicking “Dislike”. But just read those sentences again. That is a shallow and in many ways selfish way to react to an upsetting piece of news. It makes us feel like we have some sort of influence over near-incomprehensible horror, but it does so by being massively reductive both to our own emotions and to the piece of news we’re reacting to.

At least with “Like” that reductiveness generally isn’t insulting to the situation. “Liking” a picture of a cat or a friend at a wedding is a much easier social interaction than “Disliking” news about a relative with cancer or a killing at a school.

Negativity is complex and we should be using our words, not our thumbs, to express ourselves.

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