Facebook and capitalist newspeak

It is increasingly difficult to draw parallels between Nineteen Eighty-Four and today’s world. This is partly because over the last twenty years we brought much of the surveillance capability into our homes willingly, but mostly because this happened without creating an equivalent totalitarian state. Although we have problems we are far from the experience of pervasive fear and control the book describes. One key difference is that the fictional Oceania was a collectivist regime while in our real-world capitalist system we need a certain range of liberties for private enterprise to operate smoothly. So long as we continue to purchase more electronics the economy grows and the order is maintained. There is no urgent need to re-purpose that electronics for population control and surveillance.

I enjoy Orwell’s idea of newspeak because unlike surveillance technology it still reads like science-fiction. As he describes it:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.

The English language has never been static and nowadays memes and emoji twist it into new and original forms at a hectic pace. It feels more dynamic than ever. How could a simplified language ever replace it*, let alone one prescribed by the government? I don’t think it could—not like that.

For as long as I can remember there have been campaigns on Facebook petitioning them to add a “Dislike” button alongside “Like”. I can think of three social situations where you could use it: when expressing sympathy for bad news, when disagreeing, and when being spiteful about somebody’s good news. All are real things that you might want to express. Facebook could have added the dislike button and its intent would be clear in context. But the second two usages imply obviously negative feelings. Facebook came up with a design that prevents you expressing those negative feelings easily.

In early 2016 they released “reactions”, a set of six buttons to replace one: Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, Angry. The cutesy drawn faces have a purpose—they fit when used sincerely, but they really don’t work if you want to be disagreeable. In that case you have to open the comment box and think of something to type. Maybe you will think twice and move on.

Facebook does not want its users to have negative feelings. New posts from friends and family are the content that brings people back every day. Negative feedback means fewer posts. Is it Orwellian to choose not to have a dislike button? Not really. They are certainly removing secondary meanings and excluding undesirable meanings but if you prefer to type something in English you still have the opportunity.

But what if you didn’t have the opportunity to comment? What if you didn’t see the post at all? Any mildly perceptive Facebook user knows that the News Feed is heavily curated by their algorithm and it is strongly influenced by the reactions you leave on other people’s posts. If you don’t interact with someone they disappear and you won’t see them again until they get engaged. If none of the reactions fit and you don’t bother to compose written comments that person will quickly disappear. Negative thought becomes impossible when you’re not confronted with anything to be negative about.

The unambiguous reactions serve Facebook in other ways. They want to know how we feel about each post so they can tune our feed. Perhaps they would like to wake us up with righteous indignation then give us nice things to look at after work. Who knows what experiments they’re running now? The reactions provide that information much more clearly than likes and written comments ever would.

It is important to remember that Facebook’s revenue comes almost entirely from advertising. Anecdotally this most often takes the form of sponsored posts from a company that one of my friends has “Liked.” (I honestly have no idea why my friends do this.) I see the most ads, i.e. accumulate the most ad impressions, when I’m scrolling through my feed quickly. The last thing Facebook wants is for me to get bogged down in some long status and spend ten minutes composing a detailed comment. They want me to look at a post for two seconds, hit that reaction button, then scroll to the next ad.

In other words, it directly helps Facebook’s profitability if I distill whatever complicated thoughts I’m having into one of six emotions and press the button. So they make it easy.

Is it a capitalist version of newspeak, dumbing down my thoughts so I consume and consume more? They could do better but they’re getting damn close.

*I may be an Esperantist but I’m a realistic one.

Archived comments

Saint John says

A few years ago there was a google talk regarding a trust metric, named advogato. The proponent had tried using a “like” and “dislike” graph technique (described at https://youtu.be/9KgqtU25dBI) but it was a disaster… many hurt feelings. It could be Facebook is or has already tested having a “dislike” button and discovered (or rediscovered) the findings from Advogato.

73 and all the best in the New Year.

Tom says

Thanks for the link! Good video about an interesting problem. I think he was tempting fate calling it “dimwit”. :) 73, Tom