Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Stars, hearts, and the smudgy bias of micro interactions

Twitter is skating to where the puck never should have been.

When Twitter introduced retweets and favorites, the world was given two forms of social currency that were transparent, low-fidelity metrics for how far 140 characters could reach. Unlike retweets, favorites were complex: they could be endorsement, acknowledgement, bookmarks or even ironic swipes; they were social tips, a subtle nod, a more neutral action than the ham-fisted Facebook LIKE.

This week, Twitter retired the “favorite” action, represented with a star, in favor of “like”, represented by a heart.

Functionally, nothing has changed; only the word and icon are new. But the semantics and connotations are not interchangeable. What began as a more-or-less neutral action is no longer.

Within social media, we’re playing out a complicated social experiment where the worlds of language, iconographic abstractions, user intent and micro interactions collide. These little binary toggles, whether they be stars or hearts, are digital grunts that say nothing but communicate everything.

This intersection is where the bias of software design shapes how we interact. Twitter’s interface change shifts the user intention away from a neutral interaction. Emotion is introduced. And that complicates things.

First, the word.

On a spectrum of emotional language, “like” carries significant baggage.

Emotional weight of different interaction words

There’s meaningful difference between “favorite”, which is near-neutral language, and “like”, which is loaded with positivity and chummy reinforcement. When I see a tweet that I want to save for later, but don’t really like, how does this action serve me? What about a tweet I want to recommend, but still don’t really like? How does it serve the author? Twitter is flipping innocuous intent into one-direction reinforcement. Can we ever trust the “like” button to represent what it literally claims?

The heart icon exacerbates this.

Hearts and stars — or plus signs, smiley faces, checkmarks, hamburgers, magnifying glasses, diamonds, horseshoes, clovers, blue moons — are subject to interpretation and have to fight an upstream battle of institutional bias. For most, a red heart does not mean “like” — it means “love”. Ask any kid around Valentine’s Day. When Twitter (or others) disrupts that meaning, it smudges what we intend to communicate. If a red heart means “like”, what do we have left to represent love?

Facebook realized the limitations of a binary thumbs up and is testing a wider spectrum of micro interactions. (And to their credit, they associate a heart with “love”.) Medium has separate buttons for “save for later” and “recommend”; Vimeo separates “watch later” and “like”; YouTube has “add to watch later” and “like” (and “dislike”). Specificity of intent is needed when interacting with content.

Perhaps Twitter recognized and was understandably uncomfortable with the ambiguity of “favorite”. Perhaps they wanted to be clearer about intent. But their fix just homogenizes a user experience that is already painfully eroded from its democratic origins and smacks of appeasing short-view shareholders.

“Stars, hearts, and the smudgy bias of micro interactions” was originally published on Medium.

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