The Real Reason Behind Facebook’s New ‘Reactions’

(Photo: Facebook) (Credit: Facebook)

The like button, as we know, is no more. Yesterday, Facebook rolled out “reactions” to replace the old like button: the classic thumbs up for “like” is still there, but users can now express “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “sad,” and Angry” as well, each with their own little emojii. It boggles the mind a little to imagine the millions and millions of dollars likely spent to design and implement the ability to put an angry face on a picture of waffles.

At first blush, this seems like a user-facing decision first and foremost. The like button was limiting, that logic goes, and a broader range of reactions will give people more ways to express themselves on the platform. On top of that, it allows Facebook a way to keep pushing news stories by not forcing people into the awkward position of “liking” articles about tragedy or injustice. And all that is true! The like button had become extremely limiting, and heavy Facebook users will no doubt appreciate the chance to say more, albeit only slightly more, nuanced thoughts with the click of a button. But it’s not the whole story.

It’s important to remember that Facebook sells ads. and like Google before it, it offers advertisers the ability to laser-target their products with a massive wealth of data about the people they’re selling to. Facebook’s goal, then, is to paint as accurate a picture of you as a virtual and real human being as possible. In that sense, the like button was a major problem: people used it to say everything from “how cute” to “I agree” to “congratulations” or “I’m sorry.” That gets to be a problem when you’re trying to analyze data from over 1 billion users.

Enter reactions. Facebook is limiting things to six different emojji, which is 6 times what we were working with before, but still a small enough number that the data stays relatively easy to read. Consider that we can already express pretty much whatever we want on a Facebook post via comments. While that’s working fine for users, it’s not quite as clean as either Facebook or its customers (advertisers) might want. They’ve got to worry about context, different meanings of the same word, complicated comments and so much more — it’s a mess. But reactions are nice and simple. An advertiser can see that their “angry” responses are outpacing their “love” responses, and tweak accordingly.

On the macro level, it gives Facebook much better tools for determining your political affiliations, general demeanor, and more, and that means ever more targeted advertising and an ever more accurate version of you living somewhere in the Facebook servers. Not that this point of view should limit your use of emojii in any way: Facebook probably already knows more about you than you could ever guess, anyway. But whenever decisions like this get made, it’s important to remember who is actually benefitting, and from what. Remember, if you can’t tell what’s being sold, the product is you.

David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Forbes, IGN.com, Wired and more. Follow him on Twitter @DaveThier.

The Real Reason Behind Facebook’s New ‘Reactions’