Is the opposite of a thumbs up really a thumbs down?

Facebook users have spent years pleading for a way to “dislike” as well as “like” posts, and developers are finally responding with an alternative to the signature like button.

However Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has historically resisted the idea of a dislike button for fear of making the site too negative. On Oct. 8, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is launching “reactions,” which he described as a more expressive version of the like button. The new reactions will include “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “yay,” “sad” and “angry.” Facebook users in Spain and Ireland are currently testing this new feature before it is introduced to the rest of the world.

The introduction of counterparts to the almighty like button brings up many questions, including what the word “like” has come to mean after nearly a decade of Facebook domination and whether the opposite of a thumbs up really is a thumbs down.

The concept of the like has become fairly universal. If something can be found on the internet, a user can like it: statues, pictures, pages, comments, articles and videos. While some platforms may call it by a different name – Twitter has favorites and Google Plus has plus ones– the end result is the same. However, not all likes convey the same emotions and meaning.

“What has developed is a mismatch between what the word ‘like’ means and the actual sentiment behind the action that you are making by hitting that button,” said Lauren Squires, an assistant professor of English at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, who studies the relationship between linguistics and social media. “So the word that is used to represent that button doesn’t actually accurately describe the behavior that is being done by pressing that button.”

Facebook users have called for a dislike button for years, but in practice the like button’s ability to properly communicate falls short when the user wants to show empathy, not negativity.

For example, when someone posts about a death in the family, the people liking that post presumably do not mean to indicate that the news makes them happy. That is where the new reactions will come into play.

“The purported purpose of the new button is if you see some post on Facebook about some tragedy, instead of liking the tragedy, which feels kind of weird, people would be able to express sympathy,” said Joseph Reagle, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University. “It seems like we have come to some sort of accommodation for understanding that retweets and likes and plus ones are not just simple endorsements. They very often are, but they can mean other things, too.”

These discrepancies exist in the vocabulary of Facebook because the words were assigned when the future of social media was still entirely unforeseeable.

“I’m sure when [Facebook developers] chose the word ‘like’ they were thinking that this is something people would use primarily for positive sentiment expression, but then a lot of what people post on social media is, of course, not positive,” said Squires. “So it’s actually ambiguous as to what the action is when you press the like button.”

Users do come to understand that there are certain nuances to using the like button in contexts where the dictionary definition of the word like would not apply. However, there is still ample room for misunderstanding.

In April 2015, Regal authored a book “Reading The Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web.” In the book Reagle explores the idea of “hypotexual” messages, which are extremely reliant on context for their meaning but lose that context easily. Likes and comments online are a good example of this phenomenon and explain some of the misunderstandings that arise from Facebook likes.

“I am intrigued by how easily these very terse languages for communicating are ambiguous and can be easily misunderstood or taken out of context,” said Reagle. “We’ve been using the term liking for a very long time. It is not one of those neologisms. It is one of these appropriations.

While the word ‘like’ is used differently on social media than it is in real life conversations, linguists do not believe that either the individual word or social media in general are creating a shift in the language.

“I don’t really see a bigger change, it is just this is a new way to spread things, but there have always been ways to spread changes in language,” said John Victor Singler, a retired professor of linguistics at New York University. “[Repurposing words] happens. Social media is a new way of doing that. These are new cases of older principals. I don’t see social media trends forming language all that much.”

Additionally, Squires believes that the absence of a linguistic shift can be seen in the desire for a dislike button itself.

“I don’t know that the word has actually changed its meaning and I think you can see that in that people want the dislike button,” said Squires. “People aren’t willfully using the word ‘like’ to now also mean ‘dislike.’ They are actually wanting another set of buttons to do the things they are already doing, but in a way that the labels match what is that they are doing.”

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