Facebook considers new ‘sympathise’ button

Engineers at Facebook have developed a new ‘sympathise’ button, which could replace the familiar ‘like’ button people use today. Would adding sympathy make the online world a better place?

There was a time when people used words to communicate their feelings to each other. Then, four years ago, the world’s biggest social network decided to take some of the hassle out of self-expression. These days, the 1.26 billion users of Facebook can show how they feel by just clicking a button.

Since the ‘like’ button was launched, it has been clicked an extraordinary 1.13 trillion times. Every hour another 188 million likes are added to the swelling tide of vague digital approval. The famous blue thumbs up icon can signify anything from laughter at a joke to congratulations on a new job or the birth of a child. Its blandness, in a way, is its strength.

But software engineers at Facebook recently became aware of a problem: what do you do when someone posts news that is unlucky or sad. If a friend updates their status to say that their grandfather has just died, for example, it seems inappropriate to respond with a cheerful thumbs up.

Their solution, revealed as part of an internal company event, was to replace the old ‘like’ button in certain situations with a new option: ‘sympathise’. When someone posts bad news, the option would automatically appear: click a button to show you share your friend’s pain.

This is not the first time people have considered changing Facebook’s buttons. For years, some users have been demanding a ‘dislike’ button. And the ‘like’ button was originally going to be a stronger ‘awesome’ button, before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg intervened.

But while ‘dislike’ will probably never be introduced, ‘sympathise’ has a real chance of being added to the site. Why? Because it fits into a broader Facebook goal of creating a friendlier atmosphere online. In fact, the idea for the ‘sympathise’ button came out of an annual event called the ‘Compassion Research Day’, which aims to do exactly that.

Bullying on Facebook and other websites is a real problem. The company’s motives are not completely unselfish though. A more compassionate atmosphere means people will share more news through Facebook. More sharing means more time spent online, and more information for Facebook to take advantage of. If Facebook knows what is making you sad, it also knows what to sell you to make you feel better.

Thumbs up?

Whatever Facebook’s reasons, most people will say that more sympathy online must be a good thing. The philosopher David Hume thought sympathy was the basis for all moral behaviour. The more we feel for other people, the more we are likely to treat them with kindness and respect.

But some fear that Facebook is cheapening human relationships. Sympathy is meant to be a profound, meaningful emotion – not just the click of a mouse.

You Decide

  1. Is it possible to express sympathy by pressing a button?
  2. Does everyone deserve sympathy? If not why not?

Activities

  1. If you could add a new button to Facebook, what would you choose? Design an icon for your button, and write a paragraph explaining why you think adding it would be a good idea.
  2. Facebook status updates are often used as vehicles for showing off. Write some Facebook statuses for an imaginary character, where the aim is to show off as much as possible without appearing to do so.

Some People Say...

“Facebook is destroying real friendship.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This seems like a big fuss over a little change.
Perhaps, but this stuff can have real consequences. In fact, one psychologist thinks the ‘sympathise’ button might help reduce what he calls ‘Facebook depression’.
Facebook what?
The way Facebook is structured, it can easily become a forum for showing off. Everyone uses it to post photos of their tropical holiday or new clothes or gadgets. The result? Everyone thinks everyone else is having a much better time than they really are.
And that makes people depressed?
Exactly. Other people’s happy posts create an illusion that makes people feel bad about their own lives. The ‘sympathise’ button could help, simply by encouraging people to post more bad news.

Word Watch

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg set up Facebook while he was still at university and today, at the age of just 29, is one of the richest men in the world, with a fortune of around $19 billion. Few of his teachers would have predicted him a future as a computer billionaire; his early enthusiasms were for fencing and Latin and Greek literature.
Compassion
The words ‘compassion’ and ‘sympathy’ both come from root words meaning the same thing: to feel or suffer with someone. ‘Compassion’ comes from the Latin words for ‘with’ and ‘suffer’. ‘Sympathy’ comes from the Greek.
Unselfish
There is an old argument about whether anyone ever does anything truly unselfish. Even things that appear unselfish, the thinking goes, are really done by people who want to feel good about themselves, or be owed a favour in the future. Still, seemingly unselfish behaviour is common across human societies and even in animal species.

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