Is Facebook Finally Building a “Dislike” Button? Not Exactly.

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Zuckerberg dislike buttonYou can’t dislike this guy, but perhaps you’ll be able to empathize with him.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Facebook is building a dislike button, CEO Mark Zuckerberg almost-said[1] in a public question-and-answer session on Tuesday. What he actually said is that the company is working on something along the lines of a dislike button, although it won’t be nearly that simple.

Will OremusWill Oremus

“People have asked about the dislike button for many years,” he said, as quoted by Wired. “We’ve finally heard you and we’re working on this and we will deliver something that meets the needs of the larger community[2].”

Predictably, this sent the tech press into a frenzy. Nothing brings in Facebook likes and shares—the new currency of online media—like a story about, well, Facebook likes and shares. Business Insider led the charge with a typically breathless headline and post: “FINALLY: You’ll soon be able to ‘dislike’ things on Facebook, says Mark Zuckerberg[3].” Pretty much every other publication on the planet scrambled to reap its own share of the social traffic pie.

I dislike being the bearer of bad news, but whatever Facebook is building, it probably won’t be quite the dislike button its more jaded users have been clamoring for.

Zuckerberg has been teasing us about a dislike button for years—and reaping a wave of free publicity each time—but he has always couched his statements carefully. In December 2014, he flat-out stated that the company will not build a “dislike” button[4] that gives people a way to disapprove of one another’s posts. (I explained in some depth at the time why Facebook wouldn’t want that[5].) Rather, he said, Facebook was exploring ways to allow users to convey fuzzy sentiments like surprise, laughter, or empathy.

That’s very similar to what he said Tuesday, when he asserted that “what they really want is an ability to express empathy[6]. If you’re expressing something sad … it may not feel comfortable to ‘like’ that post, but your friends and people want to be able to express that they understand.”

What that will actually look like remains unclear. A Facebook spokesperson on Tuesday declined to offer specifics on the company’s plans for new buttons beyond what Zuckerberg himself said. But it almost certainly won’t be as simple as adding a dislike button beside the like button, so that people can upvote and downvote one another’s posts, Reddit-style.

If I had to guess, I’d say the most likely possibility is this: Facebook will give you the option, when you post something, to enable your friends and followers to respond with a button other than “like,” such as “sympathize,” or “agree,” or, I don’t know, “hug”—but only for that specific post. It’s possible the word “dislike” will be among those options, although I still think that’s unlikely.

If I’m right, then users will not have the option to “dislike” or even “sympathize” with posts that haven’t been set up by their authors to enable those responses. So you won’t be able to “dislike” your uncle’s polemical political posts unless he’s gone out of his way to allow you to do so.

My colleague Torie Bosch has argued, rather persuasively, that Facebook doesn’t really need a dislike button[7], because its like button has already taken on a more flexible meaning than simple approval. Nonetheless, it makes sense for Facebook to consider some alternatives, because understanding when users are expressing things like sympathy, outrage, or laughter rather than approval will help Facebook fine-tune its news-feed algorithms. More nuanced responses means more data for Facebook to mine and monetize—and if you dislike that, then you’re on the wrong social network.

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