Emma Cowing: Feeling a bit meh about sympathy

Picture: Getty

Picture: Getty


JUST over a year ago, my 18-year-old cat passed away. Facebook is not a site I update a lot, but on this occasion – fishing, I suppose, for a little comfort and sympathy – I decided to post a status to the effect my cat had died and I was sad.

Some friends left lovely, touching messages that made me feel better. But something strange happened too: six people “liked” it.

Imagine that. “Liking” the news that a cat has carked it. Imagine, too, how it might have played out in the real world.

Me: “My cat has died.”

Friend: “I like it!”

Me: “What is wrong with you?”

It is nothing new to suggest that social networking sites are a tad inadequate when it comes to running the full gamut of human emotions. Not long ago, Facebook attempted to redress this balance by introducing the emoticon to its status updates. You know, those dreaded smiley pictures dreamt up for members of the populus whose vocabulary consists of words like “LOL” and “nom”, and start every second status update with the phrase “that awkward moment when…”.

So now, instead of saying one is sad, one can choose a suitable emotional state from a picture in a drop-down menu. Options include “depressed”, “lonely”, “guilty” and “meh” (which is two dots and an upward slanting line). What a chump Marcel Proust would feel if he were around today – all that guff about madeleines and involuntary memory when all he needed was a round face and a few squiggles.

I don’t dislike Facebook. Asked recently what the attraction was by one of those rare beasts who has yet to succumb to its charms, I found myself explaining that I enjoyed being able to keep up with old friends, far-flung ones, and ones with interesting things to say. Quite a few of my Facebook friends are journalists and photographers, and when Nelson Mandela died last week my timeline was flooded with beautiful images and personal memories of the great man. Facebook can be a wonderful way of sharing information, news, jokes, gossip and lives. It is revolutionary. But. But.

This week it emerged that Facebook has now devised a “sympathise” button. It could, apparently, be an alternative to the “like” button in certain situations. The revelation was dropped by a Facebook engineer speaking at an event, but one suspects it can only be a matter of time before it arrives.

What this will mean is that, when someone posts upsetting news such as “my cat died”, “I have an incurable disease”, or “I think I’ve lost the television remote”, instead of slightly inappropriately “liking” such a statement, one can “sympathise”, clicking an alternative little button in order to show that one does indeed feel the appropriate emotion for said person and their terrible news.

I can see what Facebook is trying to do here, but dear God, what a mess. Facebook already has a disturbing undercurrent of rivalry for “likes” on posts, be they baby pictures, wedding snaps or scantily clad selfies. Transfer that insecurity to statements about truly awful life events – the loss of a parent, the diagnosis of an illness – and the potential for damage is horrifying.

The “sympathise” button sounds to me very much like the Chicken McNugget of grief – a throwaway junk emotion that lasts only a second and is forgotten soon after. Not got time to send a card or pick up the phone? Simply click the “sympathise” button and all will be right with the world. Never mind the child devastated that the death of her grandmother only got 27 “sympathises” while her friend’s pet rat’s passing got 42, or that two seconds later it’s forgotten because someone posted a video of a hippo on a skateboard. What a depressing attempt at valuing the things that are truly important to us in a demeaning and empty way.

For the older folks on Facebook like myself, nothing is likely to change. For me, words still matter, and I don’t take social networking too seriously. But the generation brought up on Facebook views it as a crucial tool. This means it wields a disturbing amount of power over how young people communicate with each other as human beings.

My only hope is that Facebook’s recent statement was merely a test balloon sent up to see how users might feel about such a feature. If so, it’s a definite no from me. Or to put it in Facebook’s own language: meh.




Back to the top of the page