Columnist

Mark Zuckerberg. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

Ah, the Dislike Button.

Mark Zuckerberg, Tuesday, seemed to indicate that we were to have one — or something like one.

I dislike this.

I don’t wish there were a button that would let me indicate this sentiment. If there were, I would not have to go to the trouble of explaining why I feel this way. And that’s half the fun.

Let me start by clarifying that I like the Like button. Like is not strong enough, in fact. I love it. In e-mails, texts and the course of real-life conversation I often find myself reaching for it, only to be dismayed that it is not there.

The whole joy of the Like button is that it takes all of the nuance of verbal communication out of your hands while getting your point across. And there are many situations in which “[Name] likes this” is in fact a better response than anything verbal we have yet come up with. Compliments, for instance. “Thank you!” is a little unwieldy. Polite demurring never lands quite right. “NAME likes this” is actually a rather graceful way of accepting something nice that someone has said about you while actually typing a verbal response can seem as though you are too eagerly reading your own good notices.

Like is, paradoxically, versatile precisely because it is blunt. It can indicate amusement, it can support, it can congratulate, it can spread your news article (thank you, mighty Facebook, purveyor of content!) — in short, it can expand to fit the message required.

But now we come to the grandma problem. That most famous awkward situation: When your friend posts on Facebook that his grandmother has perished, and you are left without a convenient button to press in response to this sentiment. “Like” serves so well for everything else. But it stops short in dismay at the border of this news.

The response? Another button, of course. One that isn’t “Like.”

But the second we introduce the possibility of a negative response, everything on Facebook will change. Grandma is the Trojan Horse through which a tool for destroying Facebook conversation as we know it will enter our walled city.

They surely know this. And given how much of our communication takes place on Facebook (I have people who have passed from being Real Life Friends entirely into the realm of Facebook friends, where I follow their exploits avidly, like a form of continuous fiction) — this will have consequences for How We Converse. This is not to be taken lightly.

That is why Facebook is framing this as Some Sort of Button For Expressing Compassion.

But do we really need one? Frankly, we have enough buttons.

A badly kept secret of human beings is that we never quite have the right words for delicate situations. We love “Like” for this reason — better than “Congratulations!” by a mile — but what is awkward in Facebook is not that there is no button for framing your compassionate response to loss. It is that grief and condolences are inherently unwieldy. Even the right button would not quite be the right button. The act of pressing a button in response to that news would feel wrong no matter how compassionate the word was. “Like” feels wrong. But I’m not sure “Dislike” would be much better.

And any negative word presents the possibility of abuse.

Look, being considerate takes work. Communication takes work. Correspondence takes work. Finding words takes work.

I always find striking the rare Facebook status that has more Comments than Likes — usually, this comes when someone has suffered a loss. And then, in our fumbling way, we struggle for words. “I’m so sorry,” we say. “Sending thoughts,” we say. These responses are never very many words, but they feel infinitely difficult.

And they always have.

Before there was Facebook, well before Twitter, well before even Livejournal or Myspace, before the Like and Favorite and GIF spread their salt across our conversational fields, there was Hallmark — serving precisely the same function. We don’t have the words we need. We want someone else to supply them. We feel so much and we are always fumbling across that gap to one another.

Proust once remarked that human beings lack the correct organ for kissing, likening it to stroking each other with a horned tusk. The action is not quite appropriate to the sentiment. But it is all we can do, so we do it.

This situation strikes me as parallel. There is no button subtle enough for this. We need a plethora of buttons.

Instead of “Dislike”, we could try:

[DEPLORES THIS TRAGEDY AND AGREES WITH YOU ABOUT GUNS] (we need this often enough that we might as well have a button for it)

[HAS BEEN STALKING THROUGH YOUR OLD PHOTOS AFTER MEETING YOU AT A WORK FUNCTION AND PUSHED TOO HARD WHILE SCROLLING SO NOW YOU KNOW]

[HAS NOT READ ALL THE WAY THROUGH THIS STATUS BUT ASSUMES FROM THE GENERAL TENOR OF THE FIRST LINE THAT SHE IS GOING TO APPROVE OF IT UNLESS OF COURSE YOU PULL THE RUG OUT FROM UNDER HER IN A LATER PARAGRAPH, CAROL]

[WILL READ THIS LATER]

[BEGRUDGINGLY ACCEPTS YOUR LIFE MILESTONE]

[GUESSES SHE CAN’T VERY WELL DISAPPROVE OF YOUR ENGAGEMENT BUT UGH]

[MEH]

[NOPE]

[AWW]

[WANTS TO SEND AN IRATE LETTER TO THOSE WHO DID THIS TO YOU]

[WILL NOT BE DONATING TO YOUR KICKSTARTER BUT GO TEAM!]

[COMMISERATES]

[BURNS WITH INDIGNATION AT THIS NEWS]

And at this point you might as well just use words.

Words are blunt instruments for expressing compassion, but we have yet to find anything better.