After years of speculation about the future of the Like button, Facebook finally unveiled its newest makeover. Along with the traditional thumbs up icon—which has been a staple of the site since the feature was introduced in 2009—the social media platform rolled out five other options for users, including Wow, Angry, Haha, Sad, and Love. Called Reactions, these emoticons allow a more complex emotional response than simply liking everything in sight. As users have long argued, no one wants to like a post about your grandmother dying.
But the issue with Reactions is that its integration goes against everything that made Facebook successful: Your Facebook status might be complicated, but the platform’s design is not. What’s appealing about Facebook is its very uniformity. The platform emerged at a time when customization ruled the Internet and MySpace users would spend hours endlessly tweaking the HTML code on their pages, but in recent years, Facebook has been replicating the costly mistakes that have made MySpace a relic of a bygone Web. Facebook might have killed MySpace, but it didn’t stop Facebook from following in its footsteps.
The issue with Reactions is that its integration goes against everything that made Facebook successful: Your Facebook status might be complicated, but the platform’s design is not.
During the website’s boom years, MySpace wasn’t just the biggest social media hub on the planet. It was also the most successful website—period. In 2006, Mashable reported that the platform founded by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson three years earlier had surpassed Google as the most visited site in the United States. In 2006, the site was bought by NewsCorp for $580 million, and at the time, that was an extraordinary deal. Two years after the platform was purchased by Rupert Murdoch, MySpace was pulling in nearly $1 billion in revenue.
But while MySpace was extraordinarily popular, it was also extraordinarily inefficient, bogged down by the very elasticity that made it popular. The site allowed users to add as many photos, GIFs, or profile bling as they wanted; you could even upload a music track designed to auto-replay, so that page viewers could be forced to listen to the same Evanescence song on a loop. That design freedom might have been a boon to bored teenage creatives, but it wreaked havoc on slow connections. Many photos and features wouldn’t load, especially for those using dialup services, leaving many pages ridden with errors and nearly empty.
Between Xanga and Livejournal, that flexibility fueled the rise of the early social Web, but Facebook’s market takeover signaled what New York magazine’s Brian Feldman called the Internet’s “white picket fence” era. According to Feldman, Facebook shifted the focus onto a user-driven experience. “The early Web aesthetic… prized owner customization over audience usability,” he writes. “The most important thing about your little corner of the Web was that it satisfied you, rather than your visitors.” The Facebook flight represented a push toward conformity—like moving from a rehabbed loft to a perfectly planned community.
If Facebook represents an endless line of identical houses, its success showed that uniformity could be incredibly pleasurable, especially for an age driven by the mobile experience.
In designing Reactions, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team that the emotions represented should be universal—meaning that “yay” was dropped as an option. There was confusion about how to ensure that the idea of excitement or celebratory joy translated correctly in all cultures. “While a yay in emoji-speak might mean the blowing party horn, balloons, or beer glasses clinking, Facebook chose to depict its emoji reactions, for the most part, with the human face,” the International Business Times’ Kerry Flynn writes.
But while the emotions represented might be universal, the trouble with Reactions is that the added customization breaks with the appealing consistency of single function platforms. If MySpace did a number of things poorly, the Like button did one thing very well: Show appreciation, sympathy, laughter, and acknowledgment under the umbrella of a single icon. Although Zuckerberg has long pushed for a way to make Facebook’s emotional responses match the complexity of what its users are feeling—from sadness to bliss—we don’t need Facebook to be as complex as we are.
We don’t need Facebook to be as complex as we are.
In fact, many of Facebook’s recent attempts in the past years to provide a more empathetic, emotionally responsive platform for users have been utter failures. Two years ago, the social media site launched an “emotional manipulation study” attempted to test user responses to positive and negative stimuli. How are our moods and reactions shaped by the positive and negative information we see in our News Feeds? If the backlash to that experiment was harsh and swift, the reaction to “Year in Review” and “On This Day” haven’t been much better. Each function serves to remind users of past memories—which often include the death of a loved one.
Instead of adding more features to an already cluttered platform, Facebook needs to start doing more with less. In recent years, the service has focused on trying to be all things to all people: a messaging platform and a chatting service, while integrating its own version of Twitter trending topics and even Instagram uploads into the site. Over a decade after it promised a nicer, gentler social media experience, Facebook is overridden with clutter—from the onslaught of Candy Crush invites to spambots. Despite its continual pledge to purge the site of fake profiles, Facebook still houses an estimated 170 million spammers masquerading as Facebook users.
Facebook’s heart is in the right place. By adding a range of Reactions, Facebook clearly wants to provide a more human experience for its 1.5 billion users. But the best way to do so is to leave the creativity to the people. What social media sites should do is allow a simple canvas for users to paint their experiences on—whether that’s posting a photo from the gym or status updating our elation at getting a new job. If blank space signaled the beginning of the end for MySpace a decade ago, it’s precisely why we keep coming back to Facebook.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of “The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions” and the co-editor of the bestsellingBOYSanthology series. Follow him on Twitter @Nico_Lang.
Photo via Daniel X. O’Neil /Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman