Last year, a rental scammer conned my pregnant wife and me out of $5,100 and very nearly left us homeless. I wrote about it on Tumblr. Almost immediately, 50 people "liked" my bad news. Jerks.
Of course, what they were trying to do was express sympathy or solidarity. They wanted to say "I'm with you, and thinking of you." But the way they did it was by clicking a button with a little heart that Tumblr tallied up as "likes." They essentially approved of my heartbreaking story. But what's the right thing to do there?
It's not just a Tumblr thing. Facebook has likes. Twitter has favorites. Many of our electronic interactions these days take the form of one person writing something, while another comes along behind and provides a little drive click-by validation.
That was a funny tweet about hobo vaginas! *Favorite.* That video you posted on Tumblr of a cat attacking a mirror was hilarious! *Like.* I see on Facebook that your ladyfriend is pregnant. *Like.* (I guess.)
But let's say someone has some really bad news to share. They lost a job. Their dog died. They have an incurable STD. All stemming from the same incident. Should you "Like" that?
The idea for Facebook's Like button came out of an all-night hackathon. It was designed to give your friends positive feedback. Its designers originally called it the awesome button. And the problem is that you get so used to validating your friends with this simple little tool, and telling them they are awesome, you don't really know what to do when things, well, suck.
It lacks complexity. It's all or nothing. It's like, or don't like. There is no thumbs down.
Maybe worse, there is no hug. There's no button to let me wrap my arms around you and say, "it's gonna be okay, hoss. I am here for you. Clicking on hug." Should there be?
No, says Mule Design's Mike Monteiro, a designer of sites for entities like SixApart, AllThingsD, GigaOM and ProPublica who writes frequently about design.
"Nuance is the first casualty of non face-to-face communication," he explains. "And complex emotions need a complex delivery mechanism like the human face. I'm not sure I'd want social networks to handle emotions beyond the most banal; 'liking.' What if we could hit a button for 'outrage?' How many of us would mistake that for actual effort? And if I told you all I had cancer do I want you clicking the sad emoticon button? I'd beat cancer just to kick your ass."
"We should put our energy into designing things to make people's lives better, not to make society more emotionally infantile. We used to design things to take us to the moon, now we design things to keep us from getting out of bed."
Sometimes software does give us a way to react negatively, but that's often worse. On Reddit, for example, when you downvote you're not saying "I recognize this is bad and I feel sympathy" but rather expressing disapproval of the post or comment itself. You're helping to bury it. And that's usually how it works on most systems. Downvotes aren't sympathetic; they're disapproving.
When I vote something down, it doesn't say, "I'm sorry," it says "you suck."
Software isn't for feelings. What we need for that is something we've already got: language.
This morning I read about a problem a friend's daughter was having on Facebook. Somebody posted "dislike." That's dumb. But it's effective! It communicated a feeling.
And language can take many forms. There's an online community I've been on for more than a decade now where people can mark files and uploads as [good] or [bad]. Sometimes someone will post, say, a picture of a parent who just passed away. The kind of thing where words don't suffice. People will universally vote good on it, but will often add a little symbol, for example ~~~ to indicate good vibes.
So, look, sure. You can go ahead and Like it, or Fave it, or Star it or Heart it. Go ahead and click whatever dumb icon the software has left for you. But when you do that don't mistake it for genuine sentiment. You aren't expressing emotion, you're clicking on something. You're changing a setting, not the situation.
Don't offload your humanity on something you click with a mouse. Remember that even though we're interacting electronically, you're still a person with more than an upvote/downvote capability. No matter what shape that icon is, your heart's not a button.
And so after you click that easy dumb little button, write a reply. Say something. Use your human capacity for language. You don't even have to say much. Just a little text. If you don't know what to say, you can just say "sorry." It's enough.
You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.