Columns

Kumar ’17: In defense of the ‘like’

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Last Wednesday, Facebook unveiled its reactions, five emojis meant to supplement the like button as users express emotions: love, haha, wow, sad and angry. The world took note, with news coverage from a broad range of outlets and gleeful (or cynical) statuses about the change from the social network’s users. After some growing pains, including how to choose a reaction (hover over the like button) and how to interpret the number of reactions (the top three reactions appear next to the total), most of us settled into the new system, tapping love for our friend’s new profile picture, haha for a Leonardo DiCaprio meme and angry for any and all news about Donald Trump. Beyond the initial brouhaha, though, the reactions are a revealing indicator of the future of language and human interaction.

The reactions are, in reality, far less revolutionary than Facebook might have us believe; after all, one could always post a comment with these same emojis in the past. Their introduction as reactions, then, merely puts the emojis closer within our reach, reflecting the further encroachment of visual communication into the realm of written language. Instead of commenting to express our sympathy at the passing of an acquaintance’s pet, is it now sufficient to press sad and keep scrolling? Does the emoji shed a tear so that we don’t have to?

Still, this anxiety about the decline of language as we know it is overblown: Emojis nourish rather than impoverish our capacity to express ourselves. Human sentiment is often more nuanced than even words — in all their richness — can effectively represent, and in the context of the informal communication that occurs on Facebook, it can be easier and more efficient to use a winky face or a tongue emoji than to write a clumsy string of words to express ambivalence. Sometimes, of course, words are necessary: For a close friend, hitting the sad button will not suffice, and I doubt that emojis will ever penetrate the persnickety world of formal communication (like this newspaper).

Even as a strong believer in the transformative power of the emoji and as someone who has enjoyed the novelty of the reactions, I ultimately disapprove of them because they fail to capture the complexity of my emotions. In this sense, they come up short where run-of-the-mill emojis most succeed. The very point of the reactions’ creation was to provide Facebook users with an alternative to the generic like, but by forcing us to choose a single, narrow emotion, the reactions send us back into the same trap of oversimplification. Many posts make me simultaneously sad and angry; others tug at my heart and make me exclaim haha. Why must I pick just one?

In fact, with the new reactions at my fingertips, I find myself reverting back to the like button. In the years when there was no other option, hitting like came to signify the gamut of human emotion. My friends understood that in liking their posts about police brutality, racism, homophobia and countless other problems that continue to trouble the United States today, I wasn’t expressing my joy at others’ suffering. I was communicating the nuanced combination of sentiments that are the markers of compassion: outrage, pain, sympathy, concern, fear and so on. The like button became, depending on the circumstance, a virtual high five, hug or raised fist. It has retained that complex signification — a quality that the reactions will never achieve.

In my French class this semester, we have discussed the meaning of the word “étranger,” which can mean “stranger,” “foreign,” “foreigner” or “abroad” in different contexts. The fact that a word doesn’t exist in a language, our professor said, doesn’t mean that the idea that it represents is also nonexistent. In fact, it is the very instance of missing words and ambiguous definitions that makes languages — and the relationships between languages — so interesting to consider.

Like the word “étranger,” the like button has become a site of confusion and hesitancy but also of nuance and depth. The introduction of the alternative reactions, however short-lived they may prove to be, was necessary to fully comprehend the kaleidoscopic meaning of a like. Though the reactions are an advertiser’s dream because they allow for the quantification and analysis of people’s preferences, they are part of an ongoing struggle between those who would shun ambiguity in favor of businesslike clarity and those who cherish the former as vital to the human experience.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reactions patronize an entire generation of Facebook users, a generation that communicates in an emoji-heavy language more multidimensional than one might assume. I don’t know how long Facebook will remain an integral part of my life — but while it does, I think I’ll stick with the like button.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu.

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