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Facebook’s Decision To Blow Up the LIKE Button

The most drastic change to Facebook in years was born a year ago during an off-site at the Four Seasons Silicon Valley, a 10-minute drive from headquarters. Chris Cox, the social network’s chief product officer, led the discussion, asking each of the six executives around the conference room to list the top three projects they were most eager to tackle in 2015. When it was Cox’s turn, he dropped a bomb: They needed to do something about the “like” button.
The like button is the engine of Facebook and its most recognized symbol. A giant version of it adorns the entrance to the company’s campus in Menlo Park, Calif. Facebook’s 1.6 billion users click on it more than 6 billion times a day—more frequently than people conduct searches on Google—which affects billions of advertising dollars each quarter. Brands, publishers, and individuals constantly, and strategically, share the things they think will get the most likes. It’s the driver of social activity. A married couple posts perfectly posed selfies, proving they’re in love; a news organization offers up what’s fun and entertaining, hoping the likes will spread its content. All those likes tell Facebook what’s popular and should be shown most often on the News Feed. But the button is also a blunt, clumsy tool. Someone announces her divorce on the site, and friends grit their teeth and “like” it. There’s a devastating earthquake in Nepal, and invariably a few overeager clickers give it the ol’ thumbs-up.
Changing the button is like Coca-Cola messing with its secret recipe. Cox had tried to battle the like button a few times before, but no idea was good enough to qualify for public testing. “This was a feature that was right in the heart of the way you use Facebook, so it needed to be executed really well in order to not detract and clutter up the experience,” he says. “All of the other attempts had failed.” The obvious alternative, a “dislike” button, had been rejected on the grounds that it would sow too much negativity.
Cox told the Four Seasons gathering that the time was finally right for a change, now that Facebook had successfully transitioned a majority of its business to smartphones. His top deputy, Adam Mosseri, took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m with you,” he said solemnly.
Later that week, Cox brought up the project with his boss and longtime friend. Mark Zuckerberg’s response showed just how much leeway Cox has to take risks with Facebook’s most important service. “He said something like, ‘Yes, do it.’ He was fully supportive,” Cox says. “Good luck,” he remembers Zuckerberg telling him. “That’s a hard one.”
The solution would eventually be named Reactions. It will arrive soon. And it will expand the range of Facebook-compatible human emotions from one to six.
Cox isn’t a founder, doesn’t serve on the boards of other companies, and hasn’t written any best-selling books. He’s not a billionaire, just a centi-millionaire. He joined Facebook in 2005, too late to be depicted in The Social Network, David Fincher’s movie about the company’s early days. While Zuckerberg manages an expanding portfolio of side businesses and projects—Instagram, WhatsApp, the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, a planned fleet of 737-size, carbon-fiber, Internet-beaming drones—Cox runs “the big blue app.” That’s Facebook’s term for the social network that we all compulsively check a few dozen times a day. He’s also the keeper of the company’s cultural flame, the guy who gives a rousing welcome speech to new recruits every Monday morning at 9 a.m. It’s a safe bet that all 12,000 Facebook employees know his name.
He’s probably the closest thing Internet users have to an editor-in-chief of their digital life. Cox’s team manages the News Feed, that endless scroll of Facebook updates. Invisible formulas govern what stories users see as they scroll, weighing baby pictures against political outrage. “Chris is the voice for the user,” says Bret Taylor, Facebook’s former chief technology officer. “He’s the guy in the room with Zuckerberg explaining how people might react to a change.”
Cox’s ascension has been gradual and, for the past few years, clearly visible to Facebook watchers. Many first met him during the 2012 initial public offering roadshow, when the company distributed a video of executives talking about its mission. Along with Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, the film included Cox, who gazed earnestly into the camera at close range while employing some seriously overheated rhetoric: “We are now changing within a generation the fabric of how humanity communicates with itself.”
He’s frequently seen at Zuckerberg’s side. Here are Zuckerberg and Cox running a three-legged race for a company game day, with Cox wearing a banana suit; embracing after Facebook started trading on the Nasdaq (Zuckerberg hugged Sandberg first and Cox second); riding a float together during San Francisco’s gay pride parade.
Zuckerberg says Cox is one of his closest friends and “one of the people who makes Facebook a really special place.” He mentions Cox’s IQ and EQ—emotional intelligence—and how “it’s really rare to find people who are very good at both.” He’s also cool in a way that Zuckerberg, in particular, isn’t. Cox, who moonlights as a keyboard player in a reggae band, dresses fashionably, usually leaving a button open on the top of his neatly tailored work shirts. He’s also irksomely handsome and displays the casual cheer of someone who knows it.
Look a little deeper, though, and Cox’s record isn’t quite as tidy. He’s been in charge of some of Facebook’s biggest duds: a nicely designed news-reading app for smartphones called Paper, which no one used, and a major revamp of the News Feed that was scrapped because it didn’t work well on small screens. If you look at the things poised to deliver big growth opportunities at Facebook—Instagram and WhatsApp being the biggest—they’re mostly acquisitions, not reinventions of the big blue app.
In Silicon Valley fashion, Cox prefers to recast past mistakes as healthy experiments and valuable learning experiences. “I think any good company is trying things, is forcing itself to try things, and you need to be able to put things out there and try and learn,” he says. “People only get in trouble if they’re not honest about failure.”
Facebook Reactions won’t get rid of like—it will be an extension. Within the company, there was some debate on how to add the options without making every post look crowded with things to click. The simpler Facebook is to use, the more people will use it. Zuckerberg had a solution: Just display the usual thumbs-up button under each post, but if someone on her smartphone presses down on it a little longer, the other options will reveal themselves. Cox’s team went with that and added animation to clarify their meaning, making the yellow emojis bounce and change expression. The angry one turns red, looking downward in rage, for example. Once people click their responses, the posts in News Feed show a tally of how many wows, hahas, and loves each generated.
This update may seem trivial. All it’s doing is increasing the number of clickable responses. People already comment on posts with emojis or, in some cases, actual words. But the feature will probably make Facebook even more addictive. And it will certainly give Cox’s team a lot more information to throw into the News Feed algorithm, thereby making the content more relevant to users—and, of course, to advertisers.
Facebook won’t give a specific date for when Reactions will be introduced in the U.S. and around the world, just that it’ll be “in the next few weeks.” Cox says the data he has looks good and that users will take to Reactions, though he takes pains not to sound in any way triumphant. “We roll things out very carefully,” he says. “And that comes from a lot of lessons learned.”

About the author

Rohit Salve

Hi I am Rupesh Salve. I am the owner and editor of this blog. I love tech and like to write about it.

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