Why Facebook’s new Reactions feature is a big deal

With all the reactions to Facebook’s Reactions launch, you may have missed the underlying reasoning behind pushing out this new feature. Let’s be honest, the new like button is just that: a new like button, nothing more than a gimmick offering a small range of emojis to add to the universally recognized “thumbs up” icon. Facebook promises that Reactions will “help users better express themselves” but users have already been able to express themselves effectively for ages by commenting their thoughts and feelings on any posts, photos, videos, or shares.

So far, the only use case that really benefits from the added functionality is the ability to provide a more nuanced reaction when replying to tragic news. But why did a feature adding only marginal value to user experience gain so much precedence and become one of the highest-priority projects at Facebook over the preceding months?

Facebook’s Data Play

Data and the ability to process it is the currency of our digital economy and Facebook knows that better than we do. Facebook has always had a knack for data: from the very early days of the company, it has been assembling a world class data team and capturing as much about its users as it legally could. Its entire business revolves around building the best consumer profiles for its users based on the content you post and what you interact with. Now, Facebook Reactions is going to help Facebook understand you better than ever.

Reactions could potentially become the golden egg that Facebook has been searching for by getting users to classify content ranging from simple text statuses to images or videos. Facebook is outsourcing work that is currently very hard for computers — recognizing emotion and categorizing content — to its users, and then collecting, interpreting and integrating that information back into its machine learning models. The ability for users to express not one but six emotions gives Facebook 5 more features that it can feed into its data crunching algorithms. This is the advantage that Facebook will have over competitors like Google and Twitter, which will make it that much more valuable to advertisers.

The strategy Facebook is using is called human computation which was popularized by the creator of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn. In a way, human computation reverses the roles of humans and computers; the computer asks a person or a large group of people to solve a problem, then collects, interprets, and integrates their solutions. This worked really effectively for reCaptcha for example, which by displaying all those annoying hard to read words helped Google decipher 13 million articles. This same strategy was used to label all the images in Google search to improve its accuracy. With Reactions, Facebook has deployed the largest public experiment of its kind and you are the test subject. So start reacting, Facebook is counting on you!