Whether it's posting pictures of breakfast cereal or "liking" a Change.org petition on immigration reform, Facebook has become one of the primary vessels through which we express sentiments and emotions. In some ways, that's deeply problematic -- and even Facebook knows that.
Which may explain why executives at the Menlo Park company hired a team of UC Berkeley psychology researchers to expand the network's "emotional palette."
About 15 months ago, Facebook's engineering director Arturo Bejar recruited staff from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center to serve as paid consultants for the Silicon Valley tech giant, lending their expertise in "compassion," "empathy," and "gratitude" to the company's product channels.
Greater Good founder Dacher Keltner and science director Emiliana Simon-Thomas currently work with Facebook a couple hours a week, siphoning some of their research into the development of new smartphone and web apps.
Their latest is a more nuanced emoticon.
Well, 16 of them.
Keltner borrowed the idea from Charles Darwin's 1872 book The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, which introduced 52 emotional states that humans can signal in facial expressions (reverence, maternal love, resignation, determination -- to name a few). He deputized Pixar artist Matt Jones to illustrate them, and the resulting series of drawings served as a blueprint for Facebook's new "Finch" emoticon app, which the company rolled out on iOS and Android platforms last week. The impetus, Keltner says, was to make communication on Facebook "as emotionally rich as possible."
But there's a broader technological impulse as well, and it has to do with Facebook's interest in refining its economy of "likes" and taste-based preferences, which have become the engine of the network. Last year, Facebook introduced a graph search function that was based, entirely, on compiling "likes," and which allowed the company to finally compete with Google. Thumbs-up signs -- and now, smiley faces -- are the metric that Facebook uses to sort its whole vast pool of user data. So an app that expresses taste in a more nuanced way could be an incredible asset -- not only for consumers, but for the Menlo Park company as it keeps broadening its digital empire.
It's unclear how Facebook intends to use emoticons that range from pink- cheeked infatuation ("love") to narrow-eyed shyness ("coy") to the furrowed-browed hissy fit ("angry"), other than to "facilitate self-expression" in Facebook messages, according to a Facebook spokesman. (He wouldn't comment on how these emoticons fit into Facebook's broader "like" economy.)
What is clear, though, is that Facebook will perform better in the social network market the more it refines its mechanisms for expressing taste.
With a more vast repertory of emotional variations at its disposal, Facebook will be able to tell a lot more about user tastes than it could with the like button, says University of Utah assistant professor Robert Gehl, who has published several papers on "liking" as a revenue stream. He adds that emoticons could be a boon for the company. A frowny face -- even a nuanced frowny face -- is a lot simpler for a machine to understand than a string of words, which means that adding one to the end of a Facebook status update could reveal volumes about the user. It could also provide Facebook with a "granular understanding of our emotions over time," Gehl says.
That could benefit the company when someone encodes sadness over a breakup, yielding a spate of new ads for singles bars.
Gehl says he's not too impressed with the Finch emoticons, but he does think they're a useful addition to Facebook's toolbox. After all, they do the work of a "dislike" without compromising brand equity. Rather than propose dislike for, say, Wal-Mart, Facebook users simply give it an angry face. For the company, that's a win-win.