December 23, 2021

A Facebook Ambiguity

 Facebook posts allow members to leave comments. They also allow members to indicate reactions by selecting the icons below, which are accessed by hovering over the thump-up Like icon:

Facebook Reaction Icons
Facebook reaction icons

Mousing over these icons, Facebook indicates—or seems to indicate—their meaning. From left to right, the icons are identified as Like, Love, Care, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry. (This set of icons has been expanded over time. Note that the icons are animated, and I caught the Wow icon at an odd moment in the above graphic.) In response to a post, it is easy to assume that selecting one of these icons indicates one of the following reactions:

  • Like: I like the post—a kind of default thumbs-up.
  • Love: I love the post, i.e., I think it’s terrific.
  • Care: I am very sympathetic to the author of the post—a kind of electronic hug.
  • Haha: I think the post is funny.
  • Wow: I find the post surprising in some way.
  • Sad: I am saddened by the post.
  • Angry: I am angered by the post.

I suspect that most Facebook users attribute similar meanings to these icons when they are applied to an all-text post.

Matters become more complicated when a post contains a graphic or when it links to external content. If the poster has written no text, the reactions would seem to apply to the graphic or the Web content presented in the post. Or does it? A reaction might be construed as a response to the content’s having been posted. Things get even more complicated if the poster has commented on the graphic or linked content. If I click on Angry, am I indicating anger with the poster or with the material posted? For example, the poster can link to a news story but express displeasure with it through introductory text. If I select Angry, am I sympathizing with the poster or am I mad at the poster because I am pleased with the news story? It is hard for me to decide the target of my reaction and hard for the poster to discern my intention.

The obvious conclusion of the above analysis is that, in reacting to a post, I should be able to distinguish between my reaction to what the poster has written and what content the poster provided. For example, a clearly false story has been posted, but the poster is clearly posting it for information, knows it is false, and is unhappy with it. In such a case, I might Like the commentary but be Angry with the referenced story. One can imagine other combinations of reactions to the poster and the material posted.

Could Facebook help us out here? Yes, I think it could. Users could be given the option of expressing two different reactions, one applying to the poster and one applying to the posted graphic or external material. No doubt, the Meta Mavens would object to complicating posts with two sets of reaction icons. I can respect that. But offering an expanded option need not be overly complex. Several mechanisms come to mind.

Perhaps the simplest scheme would retain the Like thumb-up icon. Clicking on it would record a Like for the post as a whole. Hovering over it would bring up the icon row shown above plus another option, perhaps of a small thump-up and thump-down icon. Clicking on this new icon would bring up two rows of reaction icons. Replacing the two-thumb icon would be words like Comment and Content, one on each row. When the user selected an icon from each row, the icons would disappear. The Content reaction chosen would be registered below the post, as is done now. The Comment reaction chosen would be shown directly below the commentary provided by the poster. If the person reacting selects a single response, that too, should perhaps be counted there as well.

Alternatively, a Like thumb-up option could be placed below the poster’s remarks. Responses could be handled as described above. Another scheme would place the two-thumb icon to the right of the thump-up Like option, perhaps labeled Like?.

Actually, the label Like is misleading. Even now, one can use the Like icon to indicate anger with the post, a decidedly not-like reaction. Why not replace the thumb-up icon with an exclamation point and the two-thumb icon with an exclamation point and question mark (or perhaps the combination of the two, an interrobang)? If labels are needed, perhaps Respond and Respondcould be used.

Perhaps people can think of additional options for expanding the registering of user reactions.

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