After years of users' pleas seemingly falling on deaf ears, Facebook is officially — finally — building some kind of “Dislike” button.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed the plans for such a button during a Q&A session at the company’s headquarters Tuesday. The idea for such a new feature, which the social network plans to begin testing soon, has been shot down by Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives before. But moving beyond “Like” is key to growing Facebook’s ability to surface a wider variety of content people actually care about.
The centerpiece of the Facebook experience is the News Feed, the individualized stream of news articles, baby photos and old-fashioned status updates you see when you visit the social network's website or app. Facebook uses an algorithm to curate the News Feed, because there's simply too much content to show all of it in chronological order as it once did. Every time you visit the News Feed, Facebook's algorithm kicks into gear, sorting all the available posts from your friends, brands you've liked and advertisers into order based on what it thinks you'll find most interesting.
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Facebook can’t read minds (yet), so the company can only guess as to which posts each user will care the most about. The News Feed algorithm takes into account thousands of factors to determine its ranking, ranging from how much you tend to watch video posts to how often a user has clicked through the poster’s profile pictures. A lot of it amounts to painstaking guesswork.
But clicking Like is different. It’s binary and unequivocal. You either Like something or you don’t. Therefore, it’s one of the biggest factors in News Feed’s secret sauce. Posts that attract lots of Likes from some users are placed higher up in other users’ feeds because it’s assumed they’ll attract even more engagement and Likes.
That works to some degree, but it doesn't necessarily help Facebook meet its stated goal of "connecting the world." After all, the 1.5 billion human beings using Facebook experience a variety of emotions besides “Like.” As the social network increasingly positions itself as a destination for news and thought-provoking conversations, “Like” grows ever more restrictive. Users don’t want to “Like” an article about the struggles of Syrian refugees or give a thumbs up when a friend shares that a loved one has died. Thus, Facebook’s algorithm might bury this type of essential content under traditional Internet catnip.
So "Dislike," or whatever it winds up being called, could provide a counterbalance to that phenomenon, making it easier for users to signal interest in a post or story that would be awkward to "Like." Though Zuckerberg didn’t explain exactly how a dislike button would work, it certainly won’t be framed as a way to hate on your cousin’s baby photos. Facebook already has tools that let people hide posts, people and ads that they don’t care about. “Dislike,” then, is about opening up an avenue for users to interact with interesting content that would be awkward to do anything with inside Facebook's current framework.
“If you’re expressing something sad . . . it may not feel comfortable to ‘like’ that post, but your friends and people want to be able to express that they understand,” Zuckerberg said Tuesday.
So what will a Dislike button do to Facebook? It could become a sadder place, as less rosy content will be better able to compete with adorable pet photos and ice bucket challenges. But in the long term, showing users a wider variety of things they deeply care about will only keep them coming back to Facebook. “Dislike” is the way Facebook moves beyond being viewed as a distraction to a destination where people can truly find out about the most important things happening in their world. And that begets more users spending more time on the site, which begets more ads, which begets more dollars for Zuckerberg and Facebook's shareholders.
"If people find things that they find meaningful and they learn from them,” News Feed Product Management Director Adam Mosseri told TIME in May, “then they’ll be more likely to stay with us in the long run.”