The inside story of Facebook’s Reactions: Beyond ‘Like’

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 9.11.08 AMBy Larry Magid

By now you may have heard that Facebook’s “like” button has company. In addition to saying that you like someone else’s post, you can now say Love, Haha, Wow Sad or Angry.

The initiative, said Facebook engineering director Tom Alison, came from CEO Mark Zuckerberg who, last year, told staff that he wanted to allow people to give feedback on newsfeed posts other than like.

Zuckerberg was responding to years of feedback from Facebook users who felt odd about “liking” posts that, perhaps, had bad news, like someone’s dog dying, or posts about things that made them angry.

Listen to Larry Magid’s CBS Radio News interview with Facebook’s Tom Alison
And, while they were at it, the company decided to expand the positive reactions too, hence Love, Haha and Wow.

“We wanted to be really thoughtful about this and not just default to a dislike button,” said Alison, “because in reality people wanted to express more types of feedback than just like or dislike.” The company’s data analytics team looked at all of the different types of short comments that people commonly leave on newsfeed posts and, said Alison, “it turns out that they fell into really about five or six different buckets,” which allowed Facebook to start focusing in a core set of reactions.

The company spent time designing different types of icons for the reactions and spoke with members around the globe to make sure that they worked in different cultures and languages. The company built numerous prototypes that it tested with employees and subsets of members and, finally did “country tests” in Ireland and Spain, before rolling it out to the U.S. and other countries.

Although there is no dislike button, there are two negative reactions, “sad” and “angry.” Sad is obvious. You use it to express sympathy when someone posts sad news. Angry, said Alison, has been used mostly to express support for an angry comment rather than expressing anger at the person who wrote the post.

The choice of emotions is an important issue because Facebook wanted to make sure that Reactions couldn’t be used as a shortcut for bullying. Of course, it’s still possible to say nasty things to people in posts or comments but that’s not the purpose of the Reactions tool.

Alison said that Facebook consulted psychologists and other experts about the right words to express positive (albeit sometimes sad or angry) reactions.

No dislike button

One thing Facebook didn’t do was offer a “dislike” button, as some had speculated. As I predicted, in an article published in September shortly after Zuckerberg expressed interest in creating this product, the company had no intentions of making it easier for people to be nasty or cruel. As a member of Facebook’s Safer Advisory Board, I can say first hand that the company puts a lot of effort into combating bullying and harassment and encouraging people to be supportive of one another. Once or twice a year, Facebook holds a Compassion Research Day where it invites researches like Mark Brackett from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Dacher Keltner from Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center to present research on how Facebook can improve the user experience, especially when it comes to helping people deal with conflict, tensions and resolve issues that arise online. For example, researchers have informed Facebook on the proper language to suggest in its social reporting tools so that if someone asks a fellow Facebook member or take down an unflattering image, for example, the request is worded so that it will have the most amount of positive impact with the least amount of drama.

Facebook’s Reactions product won’t solve all negativity on the service, but it does give users an extra set of tools to reach out with love, humor, support and, sometimes sadness and anger.Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 8.45.08 AM