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Facebook uses emojis to broaden the range of emotional responses it allows

October 9, 2015, 3:20 PM UTC

Not long ago, we saw a whirlwind of media reports that Facebook was working on a “dislike” button, complete with artist’s representations of a “thumbs down” button and other variations on that theme. As it turned out, however, the giant social network wasn’t working on a dislike button at all—it was looking for ways in which users could express a broader range of emotion than just a “like.” And now it is rolling out a prototype of what it has in mind: Namely, a series of emojis to express different emotions.

Facebook is calling this new feature Reactions, and it is doing a limited trial with users in Ireland and Spain. According to the network’s director of product, Adam Mosseri, these two countries were chosen for the demo because they both have large user bases, but are relatively closed off from international friend networks. Spain also allows the company to see how the new feature works with a non-English speaking audience, Mosseri said.

The social network has chosen six emojis, or cartoon-style faces, to demonstrate a range of emotions including love, laughter, happiness, shock, sadness and anger. In describing why the company decided to work on broadening its emotional palette, CEO Mark Zuckerberg used the example of someone who posted about a death in the family or some other painful event. Many users would probably want to express their reaction in some way, but clicking “like” on such an update would feel wrong to many people.

Facebook emojis animated


In a way, the addition of these different emotional responses—as cartoon-like as they may be—is part of the broader ongoing evolution of Facebook, from being just a place for baby photos and dog videos to a more complex mix of events and responses. A user’s feed is just as likely to contain pictures of dead refugees in Turkey (assuming Facebook doesn’t remove them for being disturbing, that is) or news of a mass shooting as it is to have a light-hearted or goofy video from a birthday party.

And while Facebook no doubt wants to give its users the ability to show a wider range of emotions because it will make their lives easier, the company likely has its own internal reasons for rolling out this kind of feature as well. For one thing, allowing people to express themselves in different ways gives Facebook a lot more relevant behavioral data that it can associate with a variety of events, and that has value when it comes to tuning its algorithm—both for content and for advertising.

In a Facebook post about the feature’s effect on the newsfeed, Facebook product manager Chris Tosswill said that in the initial rollout, any emotional response using the emojis—even if it is a negative one—will be interpreted the same as a “like,” in the sense that it will suggest a user wants to see more of that content. But Facebook said it will also be evolving the product based on user responses over time.


Also, Mosseri implied in comments he made to TechCrunch about the launch that part of what Facebook wants to do with emojis is just make it easier for users to interact with updates in their stream when they are on a mobile device. So instead of having to type out a comment or response, clicking a selection of emojis gives someone a lightweight means of interacting, and keeps engagement numbers high—which also benefits Facebook.

One potential downside to broadening the range of responses, however, is that having to choose an emoji involves more decision-making behavior than just clicking a single “like” button. Does a user’s update make you happy or make you laugh, or do you love it? If it’s a negative event, is what you’re feeling sadness or anger, or both? That may not seem like a big life decision, but every second someone has to pause and think makes it less likely they will interact with a Facebook post at all.

You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.