Facebook: considers introducing a dislike button
Facebook: considers introducing a dislike button
A view from Grant Feller

Facebook dislike button: Why audiences love to hate

As Facebook mulls adding a dislike button, Grant Feller, a former associate editor of the Daily Express, discusses the power of negativity in engaging audiences.

I used to work for a newspaper editor – one of the best, in my opinion – whose unofficial mantra used to be "Don’t just give them what they want, give them what they hate." For him, fear, envy, hatred and dislike were far more powerful motivators in terms of engaging with a story than approval.

So we filled our days with finding stories that were designed to enrage, provoke disgust and inevitably cause people to say: "Did you see that story about (insert hate figure here)…?"

And whilst the experience was rather soulless as a journalist, the experience of readers and web users was extraordinary. They loved it. They loved to hate. They still do.

And perhaps Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook mob have finally cottoned on to the alternative human emotion that could strike a more connective chord with users. Dislike. Alongside the upturned thumb we will have – well, we’re not sure yet, but we’ll be more easily able to register our disgust at a story, comment or revelation.

This week, Zuckerberg, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, said Facebook was "very close to shipping a test" of a dislike button. Details are still to be decided.

Zuckerberg continued, "You don’t want to go through the process of sharing some moment that was important to you during your day and have someone down-vote it.

"Not every moment is a good moment, and if you are sharing something that is sad, whether it’s something in current events, like the refugees crisis that touches you, or if a family member passed away, then it may not feel comfortable to like that post.

"So I do think it’s important to give people more options than just like. Hopefully we’ll deliver something that meets the needs of our community."

Critics might point out that those needs – to dislike things – are being pretty well-met at the moment. Just look at any comment board, or the reams of vitriolic abuse spewed across Twitter and other social networking sites.

Now the 1.5 billion Facebook users will have another outlet – and it might turn the site into a far meaner place. More realistic, perhaps, but uglier too.

The real problem, however, is that a single button cannot hope to meet the range of negativity humans have. Just because I dislike something, it doesn’t mean I hate it. If I’m deeply sympathetic to someone’s plight, can I "dislike" their situation without being accused of insensitivity?

If something is sad, how can I possibly express empathy with a click and not be misunderstood?

Perhaps that shows the limitations of social networks, that their attempt to create a different – certainly artificial – kind of emotional link amongst strangers with a single button rather than a more nuanced and varied approach is doomed to fail, or at the very least doomed to be inauthentic.

But hate, dislike, sadness, vociferous difference of opinion – these are the ties that bind. And within a media environment in which people don’t actually meet or talk to each other in person, where anonymity, or at least a physical distance, is a powerful tool, they may well become surprisingly robust ties.

Whether advertisers will agree is a moot point. After all, travel companies might like to be associated with Facebook users and channels that extol the wonders of a certain geographical location, but will they be as thirsty for attention when people express their dislike for something?

Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology and the author of a recent book The Power of Negativity, believes positive emotions can make us too gullible and trusting and that media needs to inject anger, envy and doubt into proceedings.

He said: "Trying to seek out only the positive and avoid all negatives is not just a waste of time, it will also mean that you are likely to fail at what you desire most.

"It is only when we can tolerate and appreciate the more negative states of anger, guilt and anxiety that we can claim the numerous benefits they have to offer us. Every emotion is useful – even the ones we think of as negative. Without them we would be living in a world devoid of fully functioning human beings." 

Which, when it comes to social networks – or indeed being a journalist on a national newspaper – is not a bad assessment at all.

Grant Feller is director of content consultancy GF Media and a former associate editor of the Daily Express