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Dear Facebook—stay away from my ‘Empathy’ button

It's like a Hallmark card but with less variety.


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 16, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 11:31 pm CDT

This week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social network will soon unveil an alternative to its famous “Like” button. While not the long-rumored “Dislike” button, Zuckerberg expressed interest in developing a an “Empathy” button for users to share their emotions after a user reports the tragic loss of a loved one or another unfortunate event. “If you are sharing something that is sad, whether it’s something in current events like the refugee crisis that touches you or if a family member passed away,” the CEO said in a public Q&A, “then it might not feel comfortable to ‘Like’ that post.”

This is certainly true. Almost every Facebook user has had to make the awkward decision to “Like” a post about a recent breakup or a grandmother’s passing when what they really mean is “I feel your pain” or “I’m here for you.” If I go to the Daily Dot’s Facebook page, for instance, I see that 1,246 people “Liked” a story about a Danish teenager murdering her mother after being inspired by ISIS recruitment videos. I doubt that most of those people found the story uplifting or are in favor of matricide, yet the “Like” button limits users to a binary choice of supporting the post or doing nothing.

The answer to this dilemma, however, is not the so-called “Empathy” button. Just as the “Like” button is a weak imitation of affirmation and friendship, any such corollary to bad news will suffer the same cheapening effect. Facebook, and much of the modern world, already forces our emotions through the filters of Web design, branded interfaces, and carefully curated environments designed to learn about us, not care for us. Empathy—literally the extension of our own emotions towards another human being—can certainly be shared on Facebook, but it should require a step more of complexity than clicking a single button.

Almost every Facebook user has had to make the awkward decision to “Like” a post about a recent breakup or a grandmother’s passing when  what they really mean is “I feel your pain” or “I’m here for you.”

The “Like” button, as it exists today, is the digital equivalent of waving at someone you once knew in a grocery store, both implicitly hoping the other doesn’t trap them in a conversation. It is a data gathering tool disguised as a social nicety. When Wired’s Mat Honan went 48 hours “Liking” every post he saw on Facebook, he quickly found that he—and his friends’—feeds were inundated with partisan blogs and clickbait-driven ad farms. 

Yet even his venture had its limits. “The only time I declined to like something was when a friend posted about the death of a relative,” Honan writes. “I just had a death in my family last week. It was a bridge I wasn’t going to cross.”

Honan’s experiment yielded the Facebook most advertisers dream of—one perennially tempting the user to leave Facebook. As a commodity, the “Like” is both a core to Facebook’s business strategy and a necessary part of the user experience. Back in 2013, Business Insider surveyed the estimated money values of a “Like” to a marketer—with sums ranging from $214.81 to zero. Hackers have made a small cottage industry out of giving posts fake “Likes” to boost their popularity.

I have absolutely no doubt that any proposed “Empathy” button would be subject to the same monetization. Facebook is a machine, a technology that is funded by the data of its users. In 2014, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Wurzel amassed a list of “80 personal details” that Facebook has access to—like the names of your family members and movies you’ve watched. Each of these data points feeds the algorithms that make those “Likes” so valuable. 

And as Forbes reported in 2014, the “company is rolling out a new feature for its smartphone app that can turn on users’ microphones and listen to what’s happening around them to identify songs playing or television being watched.” Thus, the company isn’t above profiting off what you “empathize” with and what you don’t.

But the dangers of the “Empathy” button extend past Facebook’s desire to profit off human emotion. It stands to further distance us from how we communicate with the people we know and love. The “Like” button is a compulsive action that requires little labor and yields few results. But for all its inconsequentiality, it replaced what would otherwise be a compulsion to act with love, attention, and empathy—not “Empathy.”

In a post on Medium, designer Elan Morgan detailed his own journey quitting the “Like” button—and how it made Facebook a more enjoyable experience for him. “I feel as though reason has been restored,” Morgan wrote. “I can comment on a cute cat photo without being inundated with all the animal videos 800 people shared this week, and I can comment on a post about race relations without then having Facebook trot out an endless showcase of vitriol.” 

Facebook is a machine, a technology that is funded by the data of its users.

Without the “Like” driving the recommendation engine that ruined Mat Honan’s feed, Morgan found Facebook to be a useful place for human interaction.

This is why Web designer Adam Powers developed Neutralike, a Chrome add-on that removes the “Like” button from Facebook. It’s designed to encourage more actual conversation—and for Powers, it worked. He found that he still wanted to relate to his friends, but he had to use words to so instead. “My urge to show approval to my friends hasn’t waned at all,” Powers told the Atlantic. “It just means I have to do a bit more work for it.” Powers even wants to remove “Like” notifications, which he describes as a “dark dopamine, or reward center activation resulting from dark design patterns.”

Those patterns are purposefully convincing users that their compulsive “Liking” is meaningful and affirms their existence when, in fact, it’s little more than an economic necessity for Facebook. “Liking” informs the company of what to show you next, further driving traffic from Facebook and pleasing advertisers and marketers who use the network to push the kind of drivel Honan found himself flooded with. “Likes” are profit, not interaction. It’s a Hallmark card—but with less variety.

This history of the “Like” button does not bode well for whatever purpose an “Empathy” button could serve to either Facebook or its users. It stands to devalue actual emotion by making it more plasticine at a time when its users likely need it more than ever. If you lost your job or a loved one or you just ended a relationship, you need your friends to express their support and solidarity. Simply altering “Likes” to “Empathize” won’t change that. After all, you’re still just clicking a button.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Sep 16, 2015, 1:10 pm CDT