published Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Compassion: Chattanooga Facebook users would like a sympathize button

BY THE NUMBERS

1.26 billion: Registered Facebook accounts worldwide.

1.1 billion: Accounts that are active at least once a month.

300 million: Size in gigabytes of Facebook's user data.

4.5 billion: Number of "likes" on Facebook every day.

$1.46 billion: Revenue earned by Facebook in the first quarter of 2013.

Source: Facebook

TOP LIFE EVENTS

The following were the most common "life events" posted on Facebook timelines in 2013:

1. New relationship, got engaged or got married

2. Traveled

3. Moved

4. Ended a relationship

5. First met a friend

6. Added a family member, expecting a baby or had a baby

7. Got a pet

8. Lost a loved one

9. Got a piercing

10. Quit a habit

Source: Facebook

Facebook users are a pretty supportive bunch. According to the social network's statistics, each of its 1.2 billion users click the thumbs-up "like" button an average of four times every day.

"Having a baby!" Like.

"Just got married!" Like.

"The new 'Hobbit' movie is fantastic." Like.

"Grandma died last night." Like?

Facebook's Help Center describes the "like" button as "a way to give positive feedback and connect with things you care about." For many users, a "like" is a quick and easy way to show support for posts in which they don't have a strong enough opinion to warrant writing a comment.

Unfortunately, they say, it can be too one-dimensional. For posts of a more somber nature -- the death of a pet, losing a job -- giving a digital thumbs-up just seems inappropriate.

"For a moment, (seeing a 'like') is offensive," says Donna Christian-Lowe, a human resources executive from Harrison.

Earlier this year, Christian-Lowe's father, sister and a close cousin died within weeks of one another. She posted about their passing on her Facebook page and, even though, she recognized the underlying sentiment, she says she remembers doing double-takes whenever these updates were "liked" by her friends.

"You have to remember to step back and realize (the 'like' button) is the only option that they have," she says. "When you don't have another option on Facebook, you either get past it or you don't. There's no in between."

SYMPATHY'S GROWING PAINS

Facebook is aware of the limitations of the current system. Every few months, the social network hosts a Compassion Research Day at its headquarters in Menlo City, Calif. During these events, software engineers show off potential additions that would help Facebook users interact with each other more compassionately.

At the most recent Compassion Research Day on Dec. 5, an attendee asked a presenter whether the company had ever considered supporting a more empathetic alternative to the "like" button.

As it turned out, the topic had been explored.

During one of the company's internal hackathons -- events in which software engineers brainstorm new ideas -- there had been a proposal for a "sympathize" button that would replace the "like" button in posts that were tagged with certain emotional labels, says Facebook spokesperson Matt Steinfeld. Many iconic Facebook features, including the timeline and the "like" button itself, were dreamed up in these sessions, but the proposed "sympathize" button never made it past the drawing board.

"There are certainly people who do feel strongly about it, but it's not something we're investing in at this time," says Steinfeld. "What we try to do is test things before they go out in the wild. We actually haven't even tested this."

The concept of a simple way to quickly show compassion has global support. Even though it was dead in the water, a possible "like" button alternative attracted coverage by high-profile media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, the BBC, Bloomberg and Huffington Post.

THE OTHER L-WORD

Every day, Facebook users post an average of 4.75 billion "content items" -- comments, videos, photos and status updates -- but, in many cases, the posts are about something unfortunate. According to Facebook's 2013 year-in-review, two of the 10 most-common life events posted about in 2013 were ending a relationship (No. 4) and losing a loved one (No. 8).

If the news is bad, many local Facebook users say they're starting to feel as if pressing "like" would be worse than saying nothing at all.

"When someone posts something devastating or sad, it just doesn't feel right," writes Yvonne Saint-Villiers Pierce, a Southern Adventist University graduate now living in Michigan, on the Times Free Press' Facebook page. "I don't like it, but I do want to acknowledge that I have read the post and feel bad for them."

To some, the addition of a "sympathize" button would only partially solve the problem. Many users are clamoring for a button to respond even more definitively to posts that rub them the wrong way.

"I have never once had anyone on my [Facebook] get upset because people clicked the 'like' when it was not good news," writes Marie Tuggy, of Chattanooga, in a post to the newspaper's Facebook page. "What people have been asking for since [Facebook] started was the 'dislike' button, and I can see a lot of use in that."

Whether used to celebrate good news or lament bad news, having one-click responses at all strikes some as callous, the next step in the depersonalization of communication.

According to a study of how social media interactions affect well-being, Facebook research scientist Moira Burke found that composing a comment has more impact than clicking a button when it comes to showing support.

"People who received composed communication became less lonely, while people who received one-click communication ['likes'] experienced no change in loneliness," Burke says in "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?", a May 2012 article by Stephen Marche in Atlantic Magazine.

If there's one thing some Facebook users say they would definitely love to "dislike," it's one-click responses.

"Adding a sympathize button helps us become even more lazy on social media, allowing us to interact without actually having to put forth much effort," says Chattanoogan Emily Hopper. "If you don't think clicking 'like' is appropriate, leave a comment. Show people you actually care enough to type a few sympathetic words rather than just clicking a button."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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