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Pretty much no one is using Facebook Reactions, but I finally get it.

Michael Brown // 23rd March 2016

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Who would have thought it was only a few weeks ago Facebook clicked the biggest Surprised face of all and unleashed Reactions on the world? The feature seems almost like part of the furniture now, as if it has been there since one of those Facebook redesigns that break the internet every now and again. Instead it feels like an average day in Facebook land, and that might be a bad thing for the company that placed a huge bet on changing the site’s iconic ‘Like’ button into a menu of emotions.

Since writing my last, very reactionary piece on the rollout of Facebook Reactions I have been watching my News Feed like a hawk, almost obsessed with monitoring the responses of my friends. Not much has happened, though. While the ‘Like’ button is being pressed like there is no tomorrow, Facebook Reactions are a rare sight. As I scroll through my Feed this evening the only posts with reactions are those from commercial Pages, where amongst their large follower base is sure to be an odd one or two people keen to give the feature a work out. I would go as far as arguing that some users are only using the Reactions feature on posts from popular Pages as a means to stand out from the hundreds or thousands of others engaging with the content.

So why aren’t people using the feature, even after Facebook showed off the option to pretty much every user with a fancy tutorial? Apart from the fact that pressing the Like button is just plain easier than bringing up a menu and selecting an emotion, some reports suggest a lot of users think the feature is too hard to access. By hiding the feature behind the Like button to avoid a cluttered look, Facebook may have crippled its potential success right from the beginning, restricting the feature only to users who will take the time and effort to do some digging and click those few extra buttons.

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Besides the effort, I still think the context driven Like button can encompass far more emotions than the few on offer by Reactions. While Facebook users have become accustomed to interpreting the Like button’s meaning depending on the post’s content, not every post can be responded to with a Haha or Angry face. Joe Mcgauley from Thrillist highlighted how users are still preferring the Like button even on posts that the feature seems designed for. For example, there were six times the likes than sad faces on a New York Times obituary for Nancy Reagan, and only 319 Angry reactions vs 1000 likes on a Washington Post piece about Donald Trump encouraging supporters to do a Nazi-like salute. When I do see a reaction on a friend’s post it is almost always the heart, which to me could be considered as generic as the Like, so it’s no surprise.

After a couple of weeks I had pretty much written off Facebook Reactions as a failure. Almost no one was using it, and I still hadn’t felt the need to React to anything with anything other than a Like. But then my car’s tyre blew up, and a stray Sad face hit me as I stood on the side of a busy highway for hours waiting for a tow truck. A number of people had already liked my inevitable Facebook post on the event, but it was only when that cute, teary eyed ball of something popped up that I felt something different. The Sad reaction matched how I felt in that moment, as I waited alone, and even listened to a few people shout ‘haha’ as they drove past. As I debated the title of my impending  1000 page book on the tragedy, I considered how Reactions wasn’t a complete failure after all. Through a click (or two or three) someone far away shared emotion with me, and shaped how I responded to the real life event in front of me. The likers made me feel like I wasn’t so alone, but that lone reaction made me feel that someone understood. So maybe Reactions can be useful, and it only took a car accident to show me that.

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So while I think Facebook Reactions has some utility now, and I will partly call off the dooms day scenario I predicted in my last piece, I am still not sure it will achieve its hefty goals in its current form. It is too hidden, and it will never able to compete with the simplicity and all-encompassing Like button with only a few reaction options. Moreover, Reactions places negative responses in equal view to positive ones, a predicament most of us, healthily or not, don’t want to frequently see in our News Feeds. I hate to say it but I correctly predicted that some douchebags would use Reactions for the ultimate evil: ruining life moments like weddings. Around a week after the launch of Reactions, a nice ‘just married’ photo appeared in my Feed, along with a bright red angry face glued below it, following it wherever it went.  Facebook, where is the feature to React negatively to that? #shakeitoff

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Michael Brown

Michael feels privileged to be part of the #SMPerth community as its first intern.

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