The trouble with Facebook and bad news

Facebook Like cut out, 26/05/2011, by Thomas Angermann (1920x1080)Perhaps one of the worst aspects of social media’s attempts to replicate the richness and vibrancy of human communication is the ‘Like’ button.

Initially, a button to ‘Like’ things you see on your social media feed – status updates, emojis, hyperlinks, videos, photos of friends, comments you agree/disagree with, cat memes – might seem useful. Millions of us certainly enjoy the digital dopamine effect it has when we log in see that x number of people ‘Like’ what we share. But, as someone who has also slipped into Facebook’s coercive churn of ‘scroll, Like, scroll, Like some more’, it’s become clear to me that the ‘Like’ button, and its everywhere-on-the-page nature, actually serves to generate a culture of casual engagement. And it’s ruining our communications.

This becomes more apparent when you or somebody you know posts bad news.

A friend recently shared the sad news that his older brother has passed away. Within less than 24 hours, he had 17 ‘Likes’ and 41 comments on his original status announcing his brother’s passing. A family photo he posted also attracted 25 ‘Likes’, but just a single comment.

Now, if somebody told you face to face, “my older brother has just died”, would you give them a thumbs up and make no other comments? If they then showed you a family photo, would you still give them a thumbs up and remain silent?

This may seem like an extreme distinction between real life interactions and digital ones, but it is at the heart of the problem with ‘Like’ buttons and their pervasiveness.

‘Like’ buttons’ standardising tendencies do not help communication. While most of the people who saw my friend’s initial status update recognised that this was not an occasion for clicking the ‘Like’ button, but a comment expressing empathy, just under half as many hit the button through a belief that to say you ‘see’ is to say you ‘feel’.

Today, the public ‘Like’ button is nothing more than an acknowledgement that you – and others – have seen something someone has posted. It doesn’t mean you have read or understood that content or connected with it in a way the poster was hoping. Its presence on every post and every page is desensitising our communications online into increasingly throwaway engagements.

It’s already having negative effects. At the end of 2014, Facebook apologised for its Year in Review feature, a collection of wall posts, photos and stats plucked from users’ profiles. Web designer and father, Eric Meyer, logged in to discover a picture of his six-year-old daughter, who had died earlier in the year, had been selected. As you might imagine, seeing his daughter framed by balloons and dancing figures in this context was not something he was smiling about.

These round-ups were automatically generated from entries that received the most ‘Likes’ over the past 12 months. Because Facebook’s algorithm simply tracks perceived interest in posts based on its universal ‘click here to say you’ve seen this’ button, it’s little surprise that bad news is being bundled along with everything else that Facebook deems a significant interaction from your year in social networking.

Yes, you may like the way someone delivers bad news or their reflections upon it, but it’s always more meaningful to express such thoughts in words. However, seeing as Facebook and other social networking sites have been complicit in standardising our communications online – without offering the option to remove features that contradict the nuances of human interaction – they bear the most responsibility.

As online communication continues to morph, the etiquette of using ‘Like’ buttons and similar popularity counters will continue to rub uncomfortably against situations where more ethical expression or empathy are expected.

Image: Thomas Angermann/Flickr

2 thoughts on “The trouble with Facebook and bad news

  1. I try to shy away from FB for reasons other than the ‘like’ button but that is a bug-bear too. Like some comment apps., where there’s a thumbs-up and thumbs down choice, FB should have had the opposite(thumbs down) from the very start. This doesn’t take away from the fact that leaving a comment has been eroded by the simplistic nature of clicking an icon.

    Although not perfect, Twitter is my preferred social networking platform. The 140 characters reply really sharpens the focus on ‘conversation’. Yes I know that the ‘favorite’ option is there…which I tend to use if I’ve read something later but don’t have the time to in the present.

    • Here, here, Dave. I’ve a some interesting reactions from friends upon sharing this on FB. It would be nice to hear more, but thanks to the way FB works, it’s tough to get such a post shared.

      One friend did point out ‘Fav’ buttons, though I think there can be a difference. While ‘Favouriting’ something on Twitter does have similar implications for the poster as a FB ‘Like’, the person doing the ‘Favouriting’ can see a collection of the things they deem important. This can serve as a useful log or memory bank to dig up things in the same way as bookmarking. Facebook Likes, on the other hand, do not do this and serve only marketeers and our daily dopamine buzz.

      It’s not easy to keep up relationships in today’s world. But I’d much rather have a handful of friends (who weren’t prompted by FB) make an effort to wish me happy birthday, comment on/debate something I’ve shared or offer me condolences when appropriate, than see dozens of ‘Likes’ and zero discussion.