Design: Twitter Hearts

A tweet I liked using the new heart button.

A tweet I liked.

You probably haven’t heard about it – unless you’ve been online, seen TV or talked to people – but Twitter made a change recently. In brief, they’ve changed the “favorite” button to a “like” button and changed the icon from a star to a heart. In their own words:

We are changing our star icon for favorites to a heart and we’ll be calling them likes. We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.

The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.

With the exception of, which implements a simplistic, anonymous, “up or down” vote system, all major social platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and others – all now feature a “like” button. While Facebook uses the iconic “Thumbs Up” symbol, the others have settled on a heart icon as a de facto standard.

You Like What?!

Ever since Facebook introduced the “Like” button, there has been a steady clamor for a corresponding “dislike” button. Facebook has never bowed to the demand. They realize the obvious: adding such a button would lead to the same kind of popularity-rules system seen on Reddit. Facebook, to their credit, wants to remain positive.

The issue with this is obvious: a positive response is only positive if the post it’s being used on is also positive. Did your friend just pass a test or have a birthday? Sure! You “like” that! Did they just get diagnosed with cancer or experience the death of a parent? Sure? You “like” that? If the post is negative, you’d need a negative response to be supportive.

Obviously we’ve come to accept the world we live in and know that “like” doesn’t necessarily meanLike”. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if we could be more expressive while somehow still preventing negativity?

Like Means What, Now?

Facebook new "Reactions", currently in regional testing.

Facebook new “Reactions”, currently in regional testing.

Facebook is attempting to address the problem with a new system: “Reactions”, currently in beta testing. This adds new buttons, featuring new emotions – “Love,” “Laughing,” “Yay!,” “Wow!,” “Sad” and “Angry” – in addition to “Like”. Friends can choose the most appropriate response and the totals of each will be displayed beneath the post.

It’s clear that a) this will quickly become untenable if the list of possible responses grows and b) that the list of possible responses can never grow large enough to serve each and every situation. Still, the solution will likely prove popular: any additional granularity will be appreciated.

Twitter has now inherited the exact same problem that Facebook is currently struggling to eliminate.

I Heart Problems

There’s an old saying in Human Factors: “Bring me problems, not solutions“. In other words tell us what challenge you’re trying to solve and allow us, the people trained to do so, to analyse it and come up with a solution. All too often we get solutions, half-baked, ill-conceived but “common sense” solutions. Often these start with the most hated phrase in development: “why don’t you just…?”

Changing “Favorites” to “Likes” strikes me as a “Why don’t you just…?” solution.

The challenge for social media platforms is to provide simple methods for people to communicate interest in each other; preferably positive, supportive interest. The problem is to create a control that, essentially, says: “I have seen the item you’ve shared and I mirror whatever emotional response is most supportive to you.

When considering the problem in that way, it seems clear to me that any specific emotional response will fail utterly to cover all situations. Even a list of them, as Facebook is implementing, lacks precision for many cases. I would instead question why an emotional response is needed at all and move to the language, both verbal and physical, of acknowledgement and support.

Communicating Support

The simplest control would simply acknowledge that you’ve seen the content with no hint of an emotional stand. An icon of an eye could be used, perhaps. Extending this, we also acknowledge things gesturally, through a wave or a nod, for example. Again, neither of these necessarily denotes any particular emotional state.

A more advanced control would indicate your support for the person regardless of the situation they’re in. Gestures like hand-holding, a pat on the back or an embrace are specifically demonstrative of support. They say: “I  stand with you and support you regardless of whether I approve or disapprove of the situation that you find yourself in.

Loyalty is a difficult concept to capture in an icon, but if the concept is understood, an abstract icon (like Twitter’s original star) could be used. Instead of a phrase like “14 people like this.” you might see “14 people support you.” or, more simply, “14 people stood up.” While such language may feel awkward in some situations, I’m willing to bet that it will be less awkward, overall, than “Like”.

Updated: November 5, 2015 — 5:14 pm

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