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Facebook’s New Emoticon “Reactions” and their Connection with Universal Expressions3 min read

3 min read

[text_output]Often on Facebook, I find myself reading posts that make me sad or angry, such as a story on endangered species or seeing a friend who got hurt. I want to create awareness and engage with it, but clicking the famous “like” button has always felt, well, wrong. I think this feeling is quite ubiquitous, which motivated Mark Zuckerberg and his team to take action. Considering Facebook’s mission to make the world more open and connected, they wanted to create a place where one could express him/herself more openly and accurately. As such, they have been brainstorming and investigating this common Facebook struggle, where you often like to dislike, for quite some time. And on Wednesday, Facebook released the awaited emoji “Reactions.”

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What exactly are they and how do they change the Facebook network? They are an addition on top of the like button, not a replacement. So don’t worry, for those of you who don’t like to express too much emotion, you can still stay in your comfort zone with that little distinguished thumbs up and click the original button. However, now on your mobile device, you can hold down the like button to make six, animated emojis appear. You get your choice between a dancing version of the like button, a pumping heart, or four different faces: hysterically laughing, surprisingly wowing, sadly crying, or burningly angry. On the desktop version, you hover over the like button but get a static, much less exciting version of these 6 emoticons. Kind of makes sense given this whole mobile-focused community we live in where everything in the digital world is being developed to be mobile-friendly first and foremost.

In the ad world, Facebook will take any one of these six as a sign that people are interacting with the post, therefore, feeding the Facebook algorithm to show the ads more, exactly as if they pressed the original like button. Facebook stated that businesses shouldn’t change their campaign planning due to these “Reactions”, but just see them as additional information on how people feel and engage with their posts.

But why is it just these six emotions of like, love, laughter, surprise, sadness, and anger when there are so many more? Apparently, the Facebook team has been conducting research for about one year where they ran tests and released the “Reactions” in seven quite culturally diverse countries: Ireland, Spain, Chile, the Philippines, Portugal, Colombia, and Japan. They utilized this mix of individual and collectivist cultures to try to identify the proper emotions understood by everyone, knocking the “yay” emoticon off the list after some tests.

Being a Psychology major, I am incredibly interested in this social experiment since I took countless number of classes that explained Paul Ekman’s universal emotions of anger, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and happiness. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his studies, Ekman went to a socially isolated, preliterate community in New Guinea and asked some people to make faces for different scenarios, such as getting into a fight (anger), losing a child (sadness), or meeting friends (happiness).  Ekman would photograph their faces and bring them back to western societies where people would identify these expressions. He concluded that these emotions were universal and even ran comparisons with chimp expressions.


Makes more sense now that Zuckerberg would go with something along these six emotions and stick to happiness (liking, loving, laughing), surprise (wow), sadness, and anger. Although there’s still much research to do both on the digital and the “real” world universal emotions puzzle, at least Facebook is beginning to allow more expressions and trying to fix our internal “like to dislike” struggle.