Facebook may soon introduce a “Sympathize” button, and in doing so the social network exposes its limited emotional lexicon.

 

Every year, Facebook hosts something called a Compassion Research Day, in which it invites employees to code experimental new ideas that have previously been the genesis point for now standard features such as chat and the Like button. This year’s gathering produced a possible way to expand Facebook’s emotional lexicon by proposing a “Sympathize” button, a way of avoiding the awkwardness of having to “Like” news of someone losing their job or having a family member die.

The feature, however, depends on the person affixing an emotional attachment from one of Facebook’s list of moods. If the post is tagged as “sad” or “depressed” the subsequent Like button would be replaced by “Sympathize.” While users are encouraged to emote as openly as they like, the limits on how those posts will be logged by the system creates an implicit imbalance built around an austere, non-committal platform that persuades users to feed it.

This arrangement has led to debates about the nature of identity, how much of it can be digitally transmitted, and how we should account for computer networks and avatars in our understanding of who we are. 

Facebook’s bizarrely limited emotional lexicon is so off-putting because it is obviously driven by commercial needs.

But everything about Facebook makes more sense when you remember it was started by a student programmer trying to invent a platform for socializing with women that would make him feel least vulnerable. Since its inception the company has prompted an ongoing rhetoric to unwrite its embarrassing origins. In a way, Facebook is the world’s biggest neg: a forum that mimics the emotional coercion of the pick-up artist’s sleight of hand, recasting a conversation in a way that makes it seem like you have something in yourself to justify, while establishing the network as a neutral observer.

Thinking of Facebook posts as the comingled mania of a billion people who’ve all been told their shoes look comfortable or their noses crinkle when they laugh, and who are now caught in a loop of having become conscious of an imperfection that needs explanation. The weight of the service’s neutral boxes and curated lists of emotional postures creates a set of norms that we suddenly feel conscious of needing to perform to, either in accepting them as our own or quirkily rebelling against their limits. In both cases, the user ends up tailoring their behavior and presentation against a baseline that has been set by the network.

While pick-up artistry has become its own kind of cliché over the same period that Facebook became popular, it remains an object of interest in part because of how insidiously it exploits the otherwise decent habit of adapting one’s identity to the needs and comforts of one’s friends in any given encounter. We know that we are different people in different settings and with different company, and pick-up artistry pathologizes this sensitivity for the benefit of the lurch who wants only to talk a person into doing something that they presumably wouldn’t otherwise want to do. The artistry in picking people up doesn’t ultimately come from sex or seduction, but from getting a person to over-extend themselves without any real reciprocity.

The lack of reciprocity is central to Facebook’s role as a simple pass-through for other people’s social encounters. Socializing through Facebook is genuine, but it’s a byproduct produced on the way to a larger and unstated goal. In the same way, conversation is not the point for a pick up artist but a necessary means to an unexpressed end. It might be genuinely clarifying if, Facebook advertised itself honestly as the market research firm it is, an opt-in clearing house for monitoring all forms of human behavior in search of patterns that can be made monetized.

Doing so would destroy the illusion that Facebook is a place for social compassion, and its active user figures would surely be decimated, but it would at least offer some clarity on what one is giving up in exchange for access to the service. In the same way that pick-up artists are repulsive not because they have sexual desires, but because they seem willing to subvert all other forms of human social intimacy to get their precious sexual pay-out, Facebook’s bizarrely limited emotional lexicon is so off-putting because it is obviously driven by commercial needs.

We are limited to Likes and now, potentially, gestures of “sympathy” because Facebook needs a posture of neutrality to avoid scaring its users, precisely because so many of us have been enticed to join in under false pretenses, which become more transparently limiting the longer one sticks around.

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.