Recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a new feature for the largest social network, which several media outlets labeled as the “dislike” button. The news became a sensation and went viral around the world in just a few hours. However, later clarifications showed that expressing disagreement and disapproval through Facebook will not be possible anytime soon. According to Zuckerberg, the button is meant to express empathy. It will be a kind of shortcut to express the emotion we have when reading a status or shared link. Is empathy on Facebook real? Will this change affect how we communicate in real life?
Social networks have an undeniable influence on the way we communicate. For example, the “like” button has become a means of expressing positive feedback. It is a quick and convenient way to show that we agree, like something, or even that we are experiencing the same thing. It could be compared to a nonverbal nod of the head, which gives us the opportunity to express our own stance in a large crowd of people.
The main influence of this button on the way we communicate is that it replaces direct comments. Just imagine if every “like” you gave had to be replaced by a comment. Facebook has thus created an effective means for us to communicate quickly in a world full of information and to stay in touch with more people.
The fact that Facebook is adding a new communication feature to its range of possibilities may be more significant than it appears at first glance. The “like” button allowed us to communicate positive feedback without actually communicating it. Our smile or nod replaced clicking the button. It is questionable what will happen when we replace expressions of empathy or sympathy in a similar way.
It would certainly be bold to claim that the “like” button has made us shallower in expressing positive emotions. However, the Facebook button for expressing empathy replaces a much more complex emotion. Expressing sympathy or empathy often requires a much wider range of signals than nodding or smiling. Therefore, the signal we want to send to the recipient may remain significantly reduced. As a replacement for direct communication, the empathy button may be insufficient.
Social networks have brought us closer together when we need to overcome great distances. However, it is important to be careful not to make us more distant from our loved ones. The Facebook button for expressing empathy can be a good means of encouragement or support for a person who shares their troubles on a social network, especially if a large number of people express such support. However, when expressing sympathy or empathy, we must not forget that it happens mainly in personal closeness and contact between two living beings, which provides space for comforting words, smiles, or caresses. Changes on Facebook will therefore be a useful tool, but should not become a replacement for expressing our emotions.