What Emoji Reactions Tell Us About the Future of Social Media

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Emoji reactions are here, whether you like it or not. And if current user feedback is any suggestion, there’s about a 50 percent chance you’ll land on either side. Some users have taken to the feature with excitement, believing it to be a change that’s long overdue, while others have been more reserved, feeling that emoji reactions are unnecessary, or may even be harmful to the landscape of online socialization.

Regardless of your personal sentiments, there’s no arguing that emoji reactions are already starting to have a powerful effect on how users interact with items in their newsfeeds. Accordingly, it’s important as a marketer and business owner to understand why Facebook came up with these changes in the first place—and what it means for the future of social media.

The Basics of Emoji Reactions

Where there once was only a “like” button for passive interaction, there are now six distinct options, with newcomers like “haha” or “angry” to describe user sentiments with more precision. On the surface, this is merely a move to enable a more elaborate form of user interaction, but there is actually a wide range of different effects this change will have, including a possible route to greater profitability for Facebook (and more data for advertisers). Emoji reactions are available to all users upon pressing down on the “like” button or hovering over it on a desktop device.

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The Good

First, let’s take a look at some of the “good” effects this might have on the Facebook population.

For starters, emojis give users a wider range of possible reactions to a post; rather than “liking” the fact that something bad has happened, users can express themselves more accurately. The passive click action may also encourage users to engage more often, since typing things out takes more time and “like” isn’t always the best reaction. Over time, as Facebook plans, these emoji reactions can help Facebook give users better stories and content while providing advertisers with more data. Looking exclusively at these factors, emoji reactions seem to be an inherently good addition.

The Bad

Now, let’s examine some of the bad or more questionable effects.

As any linguist will tell you, emojis are ambiguous; did that person “wow” your post because they’re shocked at the content, or offended that you wrote a post on the subject? This could lead to more ambiguities and miscommunications overall. It also takes a bit of the “social” element out of social media, removing the personalization of written speech and its resulting qualitative benefits. And while the range of emojis available is now wider than a simple “like,” it’s still painfully short of the full range of human expression.

The Ugly

Finally, let’s take a look into the long-term with the ugly side of emoji interactions.

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The fear here isn’t what current negative effects emojis are having, but instead what negative effects they could carry into the future of social media. For example, with repeated use and increased user interaction, Facebook (and imitating social media platforms) may gradually attempt to wean users off of relying on written comments. What would happen to social media if people only communicated using emoji? Similarly, if people get used to picking from a lineup of emotions, certainly other emotions will become neglected, and possibly even forgotten. In this way, social media platforms could have a significant impact on how users communicate, feel, or even think—and it all starts with a modification to communication.

Possibility One: Emojis as Language

Emoji are developing as a means of expression at a stranger and to some an alarming rate. Some have even suggested that emoji are becoming a new language of their own, adopted internationally and given meaning by repeated use in context (like any other language developing words, except faster and without limitation). Language and psychology are fundamentally and mutually linked, so any social media platform(s) directing the means of human expression could be terrifying from an existential point of view, though in the short-term, we’d barely notice a difference.

Possibility Two: Emojis as Quantification

It’s also possible, that rather than emojis developing as a second language, it’s more accurate to say they’re developing as a means of quantifying human emotion. With all the data we have available about individual users on social media (and online in general), human emotion is still one area that’s woefully underdeveloped (thanks to its qualitative and subjective nature). Emojis, then, could function as a semi-objective way to quantify and categorize these feelings. In the short-term, this is both valuable and innocuous, but in the long-term, it could result in over-categorization of fundamentally complex sentiments. It could undermine qualitative data entirely, and force us to communicate and interpret social signals using only objective data.

The Futurist Outlook

It’s hard to say exactly where social media will grow, but whenever Facebook makes a massive change in functionality or introduces a new feature, at least a handful of its closest competitors adopt something similar. Then, mutually evolving, these features become incorporated as the norm in our online, social society. If I had to guess, I’d say that emojis will simultaneously evolve as a kind of new language and as a means of quantifying those pesky qualitative human emotions; but I’m not sure how far or how fast it will grow in those directions. In the meantime, take emoji reactions at face value, and don’t try to change too quickly.

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