• Albert Park

Clicking Empathy: The implications of Facebook reactions and emojis on humanitarianism


It’s been around two years since Facebook rolled out the “reactions” feature, an option allowing users to respond to posts and comments with a "Love", "Haha", "Wow", "Sad", or "Angry,” emote, on top of the classic like button. Beyond being just a way for people to declare their intimate approval of a video of a cute dog or express their sadness over a tragic story, this innovation has had significant implications for organizations and businesses, including charities. Even more, it has raised an interesting discussion about how people choose to convey their emotions on social media, and the direction communication technology is heading.

When the feature was first announced, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, explained the rationale behind it, “Not every moment you want to share is happy. Sometimes you want to share something sad or frustrating […] People wanted to express empathy and make it comfortable to share a wider range of emotions.”(1) From the surface, it is easy to recognize how this could be a boon for nonprofit organizations and news networks: Allowing people to express a wider spectrum of emotions lets them engage—however fleetingly— with material that they would feel uncomfortable about “liking.” For example, users can now respond to news articles about injustices or natural disasters with sadness or anger, theoretically increasing the likeliness that they will appear on their friend’s feeds as well. Even more, the feature allows pages to at least loosely gauge their user’s feelings about their content, helping them to cater the material they post accordingly. For a charitable organization, where people’s willingness to donate largely hinges on their emotions, this facet of the feature is especially important. As a result, some communications experts have praised “reactions” and have suggested ways for businesses and nonprofits to take advantage of it by increasing emotional engagement with their followers.(2)

However, the issue is not so clear cut; dissecting the deeper implications of this feature requires a discussion about people’s use of emoticons in general. With the release of “reactions,” many took issue with the idea, claiming that emotes are not appropriate or sufficient ways to communicate empathy.(3) Dissenters of emojis believe that people’s overreliance on emoticons could restrict their ability to express their feelings in words, which is a problem because emotes are essentially unoriginal and sometimes vague in meaning. In an article called 5“Why Emoticons Are Killing Emotion”, Tacy Byham, Ph.D., wrote, “Take my advice. Ditch the emoticons and don’t fall into the trap of using “check list” empathy. Develop the skills to say the right thing at the right time to create and reinforce the human connections [...]”.(4) These are legitimate concerns when it comes to dialogues on humanitarian, political, and even personal issues: Discussions about human suffering and injustice obviously warrant a deeper emotional response than what emojis can express. If these kinds of conversations on social media were truly reduced to a passive exchange of clicks, people would become less engaged in it, which would ultimately harm philanthropic efforts. Therefore, the onus is on individuals to advance the conversation by commenting on and sharing content they are passionate about. However, there is no reason to believe that ‘reactions’ are detrimental to this process or that emoticons hinder further discussions, if anything, they attract people’s interest and promote engagement: research has found that Facebook posts containing emoticons receive 33% more comments and shares than those that do not. (5) Organizations creating such posts can also take measures to ensure that their content will bring about meaningful discourse, for example, posts containing questions get 100% more comments. (5)

At the same time, the rhetoric that emojis are harmful to people’s ability to communicate about deeper sentimental issues fails to recognize that emoticons, like any other form of communication, is dynamic and evolving. From the early days of the internet when users were limited to arrangements of colons, periods, and brackets, the number of ideas, scenarios, and feelings that can be expressed with emotes has grown exponentially over the years, as their variety, and the ways in which people use them have grown. With this evolution, emojis could eventually become effective tools for spearheading discussions on heavy topics: in 2014, PETA created a video depicting animal cruelty through emoticons.

What’s more, emojis have the ability to facilitate communication between people who speak different languages. (6) It should also be considered that some people are uncomfortable with talking about certain subjects, or simply can’t find the right words to express their thoughts and feelings. Reactions give these people the opportunity to engage in the topic in a passive way. These silent voices culminate into ratios of different reactions, which can at least quantitatively represent how people generally feel about the content. Of course, this is not to say that reactions or emojis could ever replace the need for words in online discussions. However, their value should be acknowledged in that it essentially allows more people to recognize and express empathy. While the question of how much emotion can truly be denoted by an emoji will always be debated, ultimately, only the individual using the emoticon can truly decide what they are trying to convey with it. For some, ‘liking’ a Facebook post about a Red Cross appeal could express the most minimal passive interest, but for others, it can be a confirmation of their deep desire to donate and help those in need. Some charitable organizations have even devised creative ways to associate emotes with concrete action, such as The World Wildlife Fund’s #EndangeredEmoji Campaign, where people could donate to help endangered animals, such as a panda or an elephant, by tweeting an emoji of them. (7) There’s also a Google Chrome extension called The Emoji Reaction Project, which detects when the user reacts ‘Sad’ or ‘Angry’ to a post about a social issue on Facebook, and connects them to related charities to help them take action. (8)

It is up to the individual to decide how they want to engage in sensitive content, based on their feelings and what they are comfortable with sharing. There is no doubt that extensive dialogue is important to spread empathy and bring about humanitarian changes, however, reactions and emotes, rather than marginalizing this conversation, can instead spark engagement in it by making it more accessible to everyone. In the end, what is truly important is not simply what people contribute to the discussion but what they gain from it and the actions they choose to take because of it.

  1. Haydon, John. "Facebook Reaction Buttons: What Nonprofit Marketers Will Love »." John Haydon. April 27, 2016. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.johnhaydon.com/facebook-reaction-buttons-nonprofit-marketers/.

  2. Shattuck, Steven . "How Nonprofits Can Leverage Facebook Reactions." Bloomerang. June 10, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://bloomerang.co/blog/how-nonprofits-can-leverage-facebook-reactions/.

  3. Garcia-Navarro, Lulu. "When You Want To Express Empathy, Skip The Emoji." NPR. February 27, 2016. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2016/02/27/468297172/when-you-want-to-express-empathy-skip-the-emoji.

  4. Byham, Tacy. "Why Emoticons Are Killing Emotion." DDI . November 20, 2015. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.ddiworld.com/blog/tmi/november-2015/why-emoticons-are-killing-emotion.

  5. Cooper, Belle Beth. "7 Powerful Facebook Statistics for Post Likes & Page Engagement." Buffer Social . April 19, 2016. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://blog.bufferapp.com/7-facebook-stats-you-should-know-for-a-more-engaging-page.

  6. Evans, Vyv . "Emoji is the new universal language. And it’s making us better communicators." LinkedIn. August 5, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emoji-new-universal-language-its-making-us-better-vyv-evans.

  7. World Wildlife Fund. "#EndangeredEmoji." Accessed January 13, 2018. http://endangeredemoji.com/.

  8. The Emoji Reaction Project. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.emojireactionproject.com/.

Byham, Tacy. "Why Emoticons Are Killing Emotion." DD

I . November 20, 2015. Accessed January 13, 2018.

Cooper, Belle Beth. "7 Powerful Facebook Statistics for Post Likes & Page Engagement." Buffer Social . April 19, 2016. Accessed January 13, 2018.

Evans, Vyv . "Emoji is the new universal language. And it’s making us better communicators." LinkedIn. August 5, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emoji-new-universal-language-its-making-us-better-vyv-evans.

Garcia-Navarro, Lulu. "When You Want To Express Empathy, Skip The Emoji." NPR. February 27, 2016. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2016/02/27/468297172/when-you-want-to-express-empathy-skip-the-emoji.

Haydon, John. "Facebook Reaction Buttons: What Nonprofit Marketers Will Love »." John Haydon. April 27, 2016. Accessed January 13, 2018.

World Wildlife Fund. "#EndangeredEmoji." Accessed January 13, 2018. http://endangeredemoji.com/.

Shattuck, Steven . "How Nonprofits Can Leverage Facebook Reactions." Bloomerang. June 10, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://bloomerang.co/blog/how-nonprofits-can-leverage-facebook-reactions/.

The Emoji Reaction Project. Accessed January 13, 2018. https://www.emojireactionproject.com/.


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