First off, a clarification:
Earlier this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, during a Town Hall Q and A session, that The Social Network was working on a 'dislike' button. Kind of. What Zuckerberg actually said was this:
"People have asked about the 'dislike' button for many years - and probably hundreds of people have asked about this - and today is a special day because today is the day that I actually get to say we are working on it, and are very close to shipping a test of it."
That seems pretty clear cut, right? A dislike button is on the way. But Zuckerberg's next statement qualified their approach a bit further:
"Not every moment is a good moment if you share something that's sad, like a refugee crisis that touches you or a family member passes away, it may not be comfortable to like that post... I do think it's important to give people more options than liking it."
So the second statement points towards 'more options' outside of just liking something, not necessarily 'dislike'. So while much of the initial coverage of Zuckerberg's address focused on the impending introduction of a dislike button (including my own), many commentators have now re-evaluated and come to the conclusion that, more likely than not, it won't be a 'dislike' button, as such. But with that being the case, what will it be?
Over on The Next Web, Nat Garun has uncovered a patent filed by Facebook back in 2014 which provides some of the best clues as to what Facebook's 'other than like' option will be. As illustrated here, instead of the usual thumbs up icon, users would be given the option of choosing from a range of emoji-type characters that best capture their response to a post.
This is in line with Zuckerberg's previous statements on a possible 'other than like' option - in a public Q and A session held last December, when asked about a dislike button, Zuckerberg said:
"So one of the things that we've had some dialogue about internally and that we've thought about for quite a while is what's the right way to make it so people can easily express a broader range of emotions to empathize or to express surprise or laughter or any of these things. And you know you can always just comment, right, so it's not like there isn't a way to do that today, and a lot of people are commenting on posts all the time. But there's something that's just so simple about the Like button."
Simplicity being the key element. In line with this, the patent also includes mock-ups of the how the emoji selection process could work, with an image that shows a limited range of possible response options rather than a full emoji set, which would avoid making the process overly complex.
Thumbnail images of user profiles could also be shown to highlight who has expressed which emotion in response to a post (with a smaller, emoji box shown on each in the bottom right corner)
While the use of emoji in this way wouldn't be anything revolutionary - as Garun points out, both Slack and Path enable similar response functionality - it would provide a simple and effective way for people to easily express emotions beyond just likes, and it would do so without causing any significant disruption to the current user experience. While there's been various speculations on what Facebook might be working on since Zuckerberg's announcement, this seems the most likely option to deliver on the noted objectives.
The further question around an 'other than like' option is what it could mean for Facebook data - and Facebook ads in particular.
Obviously, having more options to express emotional response to content will provide Facebook with more data - and since the data they have is already good enough to provide a better psychological profile of you than your partner can, that can only be beneficial for Zuckerberg and Co, as they'll be able to get to know you even better. That means more accurate ad targeting, more valuable personal data and demographic profiles, and more effective means of using Facebook originated information to provide understanding of audience behaviors and response.
In terms of ads, some have speculated that, if Facebook were to introduce a 'dislike' button, they'd be able to charge for clicks on dislikes as well as likes, making it a lucrative ad option, whether people like said ad or not. Given the above, more likely, scenario, this concern will probably never eventuate, but if there were to be a 'dislike' option, no doubt Facebook would find a way to use this to enhance their ad response options and would not simply see it as an opportunity to charge for negative engagements. If the above, emoji response-type system were implemented for all Facebook content, including ads, it may provide advertisers with more data as to how users are responding to their content. And while it would bring about a whole new way of interacting on the platform, providing alternate, immediate reaction measures wouldn't cause a significant shift in the current ad engagement process. That said, it's entirely possible that the term 'like' could be changed to 'respond' or something similar, and all such interactions could be counted as engagements (though it's worth noting, in the patent images above, that the 'Like' button remains a prominent option beside the emoji icon).
More interesting will be how Facebook's algorithm factors in the various responses. Currently, the 'Like' is one of Facebook's best indicators of how interested a user is in that particular type of content, which Facebook can then use to show each user more of the same. But if someone responds with a frowning face icon, does that mean they want to see more of that type of content? How the algorithm would weight such responses will be interesting, and will be another factor to take into account when constructing Facebook content.
However it comes out, the new engagement option will be important, and will change the way people interact within Facebook. It's all speculation right now, no one knows for sure what Zuckerberg and Co are cooking up, but the above images are the most likely indicator, thus far, of where Facebook is headed with its new option.
Either way, it'll give all social media marketers something new to think about.