Facebook might change ‘like’ to ‘sympathize’ but what does that really change?

December 10, 2013

A lot of people like millipedes — you know, those gigantic, antennaed insects with countless little legs.

I spotted one in my kitchen a few months ago and, senseless with horror, posted a Facebook status about it. I’m not sure what I expected from that particular bit of oversharing (sympathy, maybe? Bug spray advice?) but what I got was likes. Eleven of them. Because either people really like millipedes, or something else is going on.

This is the problem with the “like” button, and it’s one that every Facebook user encounters, awkwardly, at some point. It feels perfectly natural to like a friend’s funny status or a listicle about kittens. But when friends share news of tragedy or household pests, there is only one emotion Facebook serves in response: approval.

Facebook is aware of this 21st-century etiquette dilemma, and in recent days has even suggested they might be open to acting on it. At an event last week, a speaker from the company said a Facebook engineer had recently pitched a site-wide switch from “like” to “sympathize” — a change that, while not officially in the works, apparently excited a lot of people.

But while that sounds like a good idea, in theory — clunkiness of the phrasing (“sympathize this!”) aside — it sort of misses the point of this type of online activity. Users don’t “like” a piece of content in order to express an emotion to the person who posted it. They “like” things to send signals about themselves.

Consider how frustratingly non-communicative the Facebook “like” — and its analogs, the Twitter “favorite,” the Reddit “upvote,” and the Google “+1” — actually are. The language of these buttons is so ambiguous that they can express just about anything, which means they express absolutely nothing with any kind of precision.

Here, for example, are three things I’ve liked on Facebook in the past week:

  • A friend’s status about an embarrassing phone call with a source
  • Several volleys in a comment-thread argument that offended me, but that I did not want to actively participate in
  • The fan page of a local bar

And here’s what I meant with that like, on each occasion:

  • I think my friend is funny.
  • I hate this argument.
  • I want to know what the happy hour specials are this week.

In none of these instances am I actually trying to communicate “liking,” in the sense of approval or appreciation. Moreover, social science suggests that none of my friends interpret my likes that way: A study by Moira Burke, most recently of Facebook’s data science team, found that users experience no change in loneliness, a key measure of social connectivity, when other people “like” their pages. Instead, our likes — more than droplets of virtual communication — serve as markers of our online identity, intermittently beaming our existence like lonely lighthouse flares.
That, at least, is the theory of anthropologist Krystal D’Costa, who described the personal psychology of “likes” in a blog post about a theoretical Facebook liker-er named Mike:

The Like button lets Mike reaffirm his connection online. It tells the person [whose status Mike likes] that he is an active node in the social network, and that he wants to be connected with the poster. Liking presents a means of belonging or securing attention online. To Like something announces Mike’s presence loudly …

Maybe a “sympathize” button would help the “like” transcend from existential beacon to something more like actual, interpersonal communication. In fact, just using the word “sympathize,” with all that connotes, seems like an attempt to make liking a little less shallow. But this type of interaction — a complex emotion, reduced to a click — is shallow by its very nature. And changing the button’s name is no guarantee that its function will also change, especially in light of all the other networks that have other words for this type of interaction with much the same results. A like by any other name is, at the end of the day, still a like.

Luckily, there has been an alternative all along: It’s called the comment, and you can use it to express any kind of nuanced sentiment you like.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Veronica Toney · December 9, 2013