If you haven’t yet noticed (you’ve probably noticed), Facebook likes to appropriate features from competing apps and platforms. You can credit the demise of the old “[Name] is…” status update prompt, for instance, to the rise of Twitter. You may also recognize the “share” feature on your friends’ status updates from Tumblr; the place check-ins from Foursquare; the friend “lists” from Google+; the photo albums from Flickr (or any other photo sharing site); the photo filters from Instagram (back before Facebook bought Instagram outright); the vanishing images of Poke (that’s a newer Facebook app, not the older Facebook feature) from Snapchat; the “Music” app from Myspace (new or old); or even the “Work and Education” profile field from LinkedIn. Yes, that’s right: voracious media amoeba that it is, Facebook has even engulfed some of LinkedIn. Icky.
Yet in its seeming quest to digest and regurgitate elements from every digital social technology ever, Facebook most recently appropriated features not from a competing platform or app, but from the pre-Web-2.0 ‘sharing’ stalwart LiveJournal[i]. Remember the “Current Mood” field, and the various “Mood Theme” icons you could use to answer when you weren’t feeling up to free response? If you don’t already, you’ll soon have something similar in a new field on your Facebook status update prompt. Go into that new field and select “feeling,” and you’ll get to answer “How are you feeling?” with one of roughly 200 preset emoji/emotion combinations like it’s 2001 all over again. Your profile will then show something like the image above.
There are some significant differences between LiveJournal’s “Current Mood” field and Facebook’s new “feeling” icons, however, and these differences get at the heart of why—potentially cute/annoying emoji notwithstanding—talking about your emotions with the new Facebook feature is very different from talking about your emotions on LiveJournal.
First, let’s consider the emotional cultures of the two sites. That “Current Mood” feature has been a part of LiveJournal since at least 2000 (which when I started my first account), and the fact that it exists is particularly unremarkable when you stop to consider the name of the platform: LiveJournal. In this sense, the term “journal” denotes “a record of news and events of a personal nature; a diary.” While some users chronicled “personal events” such as what they had for breakfast (I knew one person who really did do that—mainly to make fun of the rest of us), for many users, the “personal” topics we wrote about were things we had feelings about, or were our feelings themselves. The “Current Mood” field at the end of each post was an afterthought, an opportunity to make a joke or add a closing flourish. LiveJournal’s architecture supported more emotive uses of the platform as well, by offering both unstructured long-form posting and incredible privacy controls. By 2002 or 2003, users could mark any given post “private,” “public,” “friends,” or “custom”—where “custom” meant selecting one or more of the 30 sub-lists of friends each user could create for her- or himself. (Note, too, that at no point during my 10 active years on LiveJournal did any of my posts spontaneously change their own privacy settings—now that’s a feature Facebook should absorb!) It also helped that LiveJournal friending is mono-directional; someone can list you as a friend and grant you access to their “friends only” posts, for example, whether or not you list them as a friend and grant them access in return.
Perhaps it was also because I had a long history of private paper journaling when I joined LiveJournal, but to me, LiveJournal always seemed geared toward interiority. It was about talking to myself in a way that was very similar to the way I talked to myself on paper, and then looking at an array of 30 checkboxes to decide whom I wanted to let in (this time). Of course, I don’t mean to imply that there was nothing performative about LiveJournal, or that between my LiveJournals and my paper journals I wrote on exactly the same range of topics, because neither of those things is true. The point is that I never asked myself whether something was an appropriate sentiment for LiveJournal; rather, I asked myself which LiveJournal account I should use, then which subset of friends I should select, then (later, once the feature was introduced) whether I should put the substance of the post behind a cut-tag. The question was never “whether,” only “how.”
Similarly, if in small group conversation one friend expressed discomfort over the openness of something another friend had posted, the response from the group was invariably, “Well, it’s their journal.” Your LiveJournal was unquestionably yours, a forum to be you in a way as open and raw and visceral (or as cryptic and closed and distant, for that matter) as you felt comfortable being. While over time certain norms evolved—such as using a cut-tag with particularly long or emotional posts—at least in my social worlds, LiveJournal was construed as a special, privileged space for self-expression. Even the aesthetic elements of LiveJournal seemed to support this: from a variety of available layout schemes, to customizable field text (my “Current Mood” field never actually said “Current Mood”), to the option to make your own mood theme icons (and free response was always an option, as was leaving the “Current Mood” field blank), it really did feel as though your LiveJournal was your own, to say and to do with as you pleased. Writing too negatively and to openly about other people might get one into social trouble, but so long as post authors wrote about themselves[ii], the onus was on readers to eschew posts (or authors) that made them uncomfortable. Though I’m speaking about the norms that I observed within my own circles, the “express anything / don’t read it if you don’t like it” ethos did and does seem to apply to LiveJournal more broadly—as is perhaps exemplified by some of the more controversial communities (e.g. “pro ana”) that have made homes on the site.
Facebook, on the other hand, has a very different emotional culture. It’s Facebook, for starters: even when one is navel-gazing, one’s face is always pointed out at the exterior world. Your face is—no pun intended—the interface between your interior self (or backstage self, if you prefer) and everything else: you face the day, face the music, face your past and face what’s next. Though our faces are expressive, we’re trained from an early age to (try to) control the expressions our faces make, to filter or even change what we broadcast to others about what’s going on inside of us. Our eyes may be windows to souls, but we also keep stiff upper lips, clench jaws, bite tongues, force smiles, and turn other cheeks (all while grinning and bearing it), because our faces are first and foremost displays we put on for other people. (Oh hey, Goffman: what is it again that we lose when we’ve lost status or credibility with others? Ah, right.) Accordingly, Facebook has never pretended to be the eyes; it has never aspired to be a platform for expressing deep inner truths (“truths”) about the people we are or believe ourselves to be. Journals are for vulnerability and heartfelt confessions; facebooks are for identifying (and judging) strangers or acquaintances based on surface characteristics. A facebook is not a format for free self-expression, nor is it where you lay yourself bare in a quest for self-knowledge or self-discovery; a facebook is where you fit your finished self into the template provided, as seamless and shiny a self as you can create before the publication deadline. Is it surprising, then, if Facebook’s cultural norms seem to frown on sadness and other forms of negativity (no pun intended)?
For instance: Despite both pleas and petitions from some users, one feature Facebook has refused to cannibalize from other social media platforms is the “dislike” button (perhaps YouTube and Reddit, among others, breathe sighs of relief). According to Facebook, having “like” without “dislike” to balance it makes being on the site more fun, but is typing out “this sucks” really more fun than clicking a button? (Ha, ha.) Similarly, just last weekend I overheard a pair of strangers lamenting, “because, you know, you can’t say anything depressing on Facebook.” While this isn’t always true (so-called “cyber-bullies,” for instance, say some really depressing stuff), I do have to admit that 90% of the sad-type posts I see in my own Facebook feed are FYI announcements, usually about the death of a friend, relative, or pet. I see very few posts in which people are openly grieving their lost loved ones, or in which people are being sad (rather than angry) about anything else. I argue that this is due not only to top-down culture engineering from Facebook itself, but also because Facebook has always been a forum for fronting, for creating the “good face” we “put on” for others—which, regardless of one’s chosen gender performance, should probably not have mascara running down its cheeks.
So if interiority has never been Facebook’s forte, and if Facebook has generally preferred that you keep your emo moments opaquely away from its beloved radical transparency, why is Facebook now taking a cue from LiveJournal and letting you proclaim yourself “lost” and “lonely”?
Well, here are my thoughts.
First, do not forget—not for one little instant—that Facebook is a thoroughly Web 2.0 company. It is as Social as they come. On the ‘face’ of it, The Zuck wants you to embrace personal radical transparency and change the world by “sharing” All The Things (except, of course, for everything he doesn’t want you to share: breastfeeding, kissing your same-sex partner, the fact that you don’t like the oil company British Petroleum, or that everyone calls you “Salman” instead of “Ahmed,” to name just a few). But backstage, let’s ‘face’ it: Facebook believes in the information economy. Facebook may not have figured out how, exactly, to monetize all the information it’s collecting, but it’s sold on the premise that more information will someday, somehow, be worth more revenue. Therefore, it wants you (dear user) to do two things: 1) log into the site (which means both viewing ads and giving Facebook information about yourself and your ‘friends’), and 2) cause more of your friends to log into the site (so that they too view ads and give Facebook information about themselves and their ‘friends’).
How do the pre-set emoticon/emotion combinations fit into this? Up until now, negative affect was something Facebook wanted to keep off the site—not just because no one wants to log into Bummerville, but because too much negative affect would discourage sharing. Take that missing “dislike” button, for instance: without it, my status update that all my friends think is stupid just sits there. Maybe that one friend of mine says something snarky, but he’s kind of a jerk anyway, so I don’t think too much about it. If the update doesn’t harvest a whole bunch of “likes,” I don’t take it too personally; I chalk it up to Facebook’s mysterious algorithms, perhaps, or figure I need to try something different next time. The silence is ambiguous: it might be that no one thinks I’m funny (or clever, or smart), but it might also be that no one heard me speak—so I provide more free labor by trying again. Even if I’m still not funny or clever or smart, Facebook rewards me for providing more content by showing my status update to more people, upping the chance someone will say something in response. But introduce a “dislike” button, and suddenly the ambiguity disappears. I made a post, and now it’s clear: my friends DISLIKE it. I’ve done something wrong. I’ve said something stupid, or committed a faux pas; I’ve lost face, and this time, I know it. My instinct is not to post again, but to retreat from the site until my embarrassment passes and I work up the courage to say something else. In my shame, I fail to be a good data serf.
The absence of negative affect, however, creates a huge hole in Facebook’s giant data collection. We all know life-as-lived isn’t an endless stream of “Likes,” LOLs, happy families, awesome parties, and flattering pictures, so clearly there’s a lot that Facebook isn’t capturing about how people actually live. Introducing “Facebook Home” (aka, that thoroughly “meh” Facebook phone) is one new way Facebook is trying to get at all the parts of life it’s missing; introducing the emoticon “feeling” statuses is another. The preset emoticon/emotion combinations bring negative affect into the site in a way that’s far safer than a “dislike” button: when I “dislike” a post, my friend feels bad and doesn’t want to post for a while. When I click “feeling sad,” however, it prompts my friends to interact with me to cheer me up—and interaction is what keeps Facebook running. More interaction means more information. The emoticon statuses, therefore, are actually kind of clever: they take my previously threatening negative affect and repackage it both as more information about me and as a way to fuel the free-labor fires of Facebook’s sharing engine.
But why does the missing affect matter? Surely all kinds of data are still slipping through Facebook’s sneaky like-button rhizomes; why prioritize trying to capture feelings? It’s not just that the idea of tracking feelings is gaining cultural momentum: emotions are the next frontier of targeted marketing. From its beginning, the advertising and marketing industries have known that appealing to people’s emotions generates far more product sales than does appealing to their (imagined) rational-actor-selves; one of the biggest trends in present-day marketing seeks to not just to sell products, but to foster emotional relationships with brands. Consider this alongside the fact that digital data mining makes possible not just targeted advertising but micro-targeted advertising, and there you have it: Facebook wants personal, emotional information because personal, emotional data is the future of marketing and advertising. And right now, getting that kind of information is really hard: automated sentiment analysis fails. We speak in slang and in code, even when we’re speaking ways our peers readily understand; we use irony and sarcasm, which amuses our friends but confounds computers. And that’s just when we’re speaking openly; don’t forget that we also sometimes “vaguebook” and speak in ways that are meant to confuse most people as well [pdf]. Emoticon status updates—and more importantly, the standardized code behind them—spell our feelings out in ways even a computer can read. Just like those “Close Friends” and “Family” lists, the emoticon status updates pre-process your data into nice, easily digestible chunks for Facebook’s algorithms.
Of course, Facebook says it presently has no plans to put emotional data into its “social graph,” but there’s a reason that’s what so many of us thought of first, right? If Facebook was merely to offer “a new, more visual way” to express ourselves, they’d have done something like poach Snapchat’s (awesomely ridiculous) MS Paint-like feature. Emoticon status updates aren’t about self-expression; they’re about provision of information. They create a safe, quarantined space for Facebook to corral the negative affect it so desperately wants to access—because it’s not feeling awesome and well-liked that drives people to buy products, it’s feeling anxious, inadequate, lonely, deprived, and afraid. I loathe the phrase, but no one has ever engaged in “retail therapy” to combat his or her unbearable optimism (dislike!). I’m now taking bets on how long it’ll take before I post that I’m “feeling sad” today, see ads for ice cream and Prozac tomorrow, and see ads for weight loss products and dating services next week. (Though as an unmarried woman over 30, this is pretty much what I see anyway when I accidentally encounter Facebook ads—dislike, dislike, dislike!)
But will people actually use these emoticon status updates (other than for database vandalism, which I fully intend to engage in as soon as I have the opportunity)? The early indicators point to “yes.” Giving people a safe, pre-set option to share negative emotions may serve as “tacit permission” to express emotions that weren’t ‘Facebook appropriate’ before; some users may also feel less vulnerable in clicking on a preset “sad” option than they would in typing out the words “I’m feeling sad.” (Our digital words are part of us, after all; perhaps choosing someone else’s pictures and words could feel more safe, and less like “us”?)
I’m personally most interested in seeing if this feature changes the gendering of Facebook as a platform, or whether man-identified and woman-identified users might end up using this feature differently (since men, on the whole, aren’t socialized to be as “share-y” as women are). Might the emoticon status update feature enable some men to start experimenting with being more expressive about their emotions? Could this be Facebook’s big gender justice moment, in which it starts to take on some of the ways existing gendered norms harm men as well as women? Um…I doubt it. Given that ‘Facebook feminism’ can’t wrap its head around challenging the gendered norms that oppress women, I’m skeptical that it’s even managed to grok the symbolic violence that our culture perpetrates on men and boys when it teaches them about feelings. If there are any gender-based aims on Facebook’s end at all, they’re likely commerce-related: while a common belief is that women do more buying, it’s also true that men still have more income. Tapping more directly into men’s emotions could be a boon for advertisers, especially if those men are either privileged and single (read: high levels of discretionary income) or less practiced with emotional self-awareness (read: easier targets)—or, even better, both things at once.
In closing: yeah, emoticons can be fun. My friends and I have done some ridiculous things with the emoji on our phones, and I loved the weird bouncing ovoid creatures that I had on my LiveJournal. But cute (or annoying) as the new Facebook emoticons might be, they aren’t retro-LiveJournal in spirit. This status update feature isn’t really about being more visually expressive and, while determined users can still use the feature creatively, it doesn’t afford much opportunity for creative self-expression. Instead, Facebook emoticon status updates are about incentivizing you to provide more information and to provoke more interaction. They’re about sanitizing and domesticating your bad mood, your inescapable ennui, and your existential depression into something that can be yoked to the gears of a new Social advertising machine.
But hey: that’s Silicon Valley, right? Facebook can give you emoticons, and encourage you to use them in ways it would like, but you don’t have to play along. You can play by your own rules (see above, repeatedly), or simply refuse to play at all.
NOTE: I’m not cool enough to have the emoticon status updates yet, so special thanks to Nathan Jurgenson for making me some funny examples to use in this post. I’m feeling pretty amused about them, myself.
Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) is on Twitter, where she generally does not use emoji. She still wishes she had a weird ovoid emoticon creature for a pet, though.
[i] Or Xanga, if you prefer—but I was on LiveJournal, so that’s what I know and am going to focus on here.
[ii] The line between “yourself” and “other people” is obviously a blurry one: we’re social creatures, after all. We do things with each other, we talk to each other, we think about each other, and we cause each other to feel things. At what point does “me talking about my own experiences” start to end, and “me talking about what you said or did” start to begin? My LiveJournal circles never came to any particular consensus about this, but we were all aware that the boundary existed (wherever it was)—and it was one around which we tread delicately, primarily with careful words and judicious use of the “custom” privacy setting.