Little Spaces, Big Emotions

Head of Verbal Identity, Rishi Dastidar, on whether a 'favourite' can equal 'love' on social media.

It’s often the smallest things that mean the most. And this is especially true when it comes to the tiny icons we use to express something in the social media platforms we frequent.

If you were at all in the vicinity of Twitter recently, you’ll have no doubt felt the earthquake that reverberated around the network, as hastily-typed missives deplored the fact that the stars that we had once used to indicate a favourite tweet had now become hearts to indicate something we ‘liked’.

Twitter, in explaining the move suggested that the word ‘favourite’ could be confusing to new users: “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.”

Clearly, not many of those people could have been in the UK, as the accompanying Vine suggested that the heart could be taken to mean (and this isn’t an exhaustive list): ‘LOL’, ‘WOW’, ‘adorbs’, ‘stay strong’, hugs’, ‘awww’ and ‘high five’.

Leave aside what appears to be the naked aping of the language of Facebook interactions, and it does rather look like Twitter has misjudged what, how and why many people use the platform. It’s not as simple as interacting with tweets from friends and brands they might ‘love’; rather, a favourite used to also function as a way of ending a conversation, bookmarking something that might be important and need to be retrieved later, maybe simple approval of a phrase.

I would wager that the change has meant that fewer tweets have been ‘liked’ than might have otherwise been favourited – presumably not the intention. But no doubt there are other factors at play. As journalist Emily Bell put it, “The tiny red heart reveals that Twitter does not want us to talk about unpleasant things which cannot be loved, even on a casual, fleeting basis.”

Leaving aside the suspicion that part of Twitter’s turn is due to its desire to please brands and advertisers, by downplaying the dull, the distasteful, the disastrous – often the stuff of life – in favour of a bland, undemanding upbeat positivity, it still seems an odd move, not least because at the same time, Facebook is moving in precisely the opposite direction, trying to offer some more (admittedly limited) nuance to its ‘likes’.

Still in testing its phase, this update is not the fabled ‘dislike’ button, but rather a set of emojis, allowing you to add some feelings to status updates, photos and the like: ‘Haha’, ‘Anger’, ‘Yay’, ‘Sad’, ‘Wow’ and ‘Love’. You’ll note that the bias here is also positive, but crucially there is now room to suggest that you might feel something other than unallowed approval of something. And while it not have the full depth of emotions that many people want, crucially it provides some latitude to users – the gamble here is that it is better to let people say something ‘negative’ rather than have them say nothing at all.

Of course this is not to suggest that it is not hard to craft these micro-interactions. But the wider lesson for brands to register is perhaps that people actually can cope with shades of grey and are comfortable in expressing ambiguity. Though don’t give me the brief to try and capture that in an icon.