It’s easy to forget that the Like button didn’t always exist. For the first five years of Facebook’s existence, people had to leave comments like “Cool!” or “Love this” or “w00t” when they wanted to signal approval of somebody’s post. The Like button arose because too many people were leaving the same comment, and threads could get redundant or unwieldy, and so Facebook needed a way for people to easily signal “I saw this and I support you” without having to type that out. Thus, the Like button. It also helps that the button reduced friction and increased engagement.
Almost immediately, not unexpectedly, users made an obvious demand:
We Want A Dislike Button
These days, if you want to force Facebook to do something, your best bet is to email a tech journalist about something bad related to Facebook and they’ll write a blustery article like, “We found a bad thing on a service that has more than two billion monthly users.” which may help resolve that one thing but will not fix the problem at the core of Facebook (the network is simply too big and unwieldy). If you really want to do something to get Facebook’s attention, act like an oppressed conservative.
Eleven years ago, contacting the site admin was a little easier. You just posted your grievance on the site. This instinct makes sense in a world that was in the midst of transition from message boards and IRC rooms and private listerservs to social media services powered by recommendation algorithms. So countless people made groups and pages asking for a Dislike button, and you can still find the wreckage of these mobilization efforts all over Facebook.
Isn’t it fun? To think that Facebook was once so small people assumed metaposting would get results? Not even Senators wielding the power of the federal government can get Mark Zuckerberg to do anything now. How far we’ve come in such a short amount of time.
Facebook resisted the Like button for reasons that seems obvious. For one thing, making it easy for someone to say “I don’t like this” is essentially making it easy for users to be mean to each other. “We need to figure out the right way to do it so it ends up being a force for good, not a force for bad and demeaning the posts that people are putting out there,” Zuckerberg said in 2014. He reportedly added — I’m paraphrasing — that users clamoring for a Dislike button should just leave a comment if they felt so moved. (Facebook later added other emotional reactions, though negative sentiments like Anger and Sadness don’t quite fill the niche.) This attitude aligns with Facebook’s consistent argument that more speech (more discourse, more noise) is better for society.
But… what if (gasp) Mark Zuckerberg is wrong? Maybe the online toxicity that typifies discourse on many major platforms could be nullified if people were given a simpler way to express disapproval.
On Twitter, for example, there is a thing called The Ratio. Below every tweet are three numbers, quantifying retweets, likes, and replies each post has received. Retweets and likes are, in most cases, endorsements and expressions of approval towards the tweet. The reply is value-neutral by default. However: if a tweet receives few retweets and likes, and many replies, then it has been Ratio’d — the overwhelming majority of replies to the tweet are likely negative. If you scan the replies of a ratio’d tweet, you’ll see dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of unique ways in which people are being mean to the original poster.
Without a Dislike button on any of these platforms, the people who want to express their disapproval have to come up with new ones on the spot. The result is that Likes have a simple quantified amount, and Dislikes dominate the comments. If you only read the text and fail to scan the number of Likes, it can seem like sentiments are overwhelmingly negative.
Without a Dislike button, rude commenters forced to put on a show, while nice commenters click a button and move on with their day. By making it easier to be nice online, the platforms have made being mean into a type of labor that people put effort and willpower into. So I guess my question is: Could a Dislike button improve the discourse? Would it let people vent their disapproval with getting overly harsh or personal or lobbing ad-homs in the comments?
Just thinking out loud!
An update from Jim Amendments III
Remember Jim? From a few emails ago? He got back to me about the the news.
Just some posts I liked