On Tuesday, exactly a week after announcing dreadful quarterly earnings, cataclysm struck Twitter. The company was not hacked, nor did it suffer a mass user exodus. No mass-misogyny movement rose up, either.
Instead, the company changed all its stars to hearts.
Stars, or “faves” in Twitter’s lingo, were how Twitter let its users register… well, many different feelings. They were a way of saying “I liked this!” or “I saw this!” or “I’ll come back to this later!” They were a more multi-faceted version of Facebook’s “Like” button:
Taxonomy of Twitter faves: Right! Heh Thanks Preach! Aww Fine. I revel in your contempt OMG go away already I am too important to retweet— Ian Bogost (@ibogost) May 26, 2015
Other messages conveyed by starring include the hate-fav and, as my colleague Megan documented, the end-of-conversation “farewell” fav.
Now, all that is lost, like stars in rain. The fleshy, bloody, breakage-prone meatpumps called hearts have replaced the sidereal cosmic beacons of old. And Twitter users are freaking out, because it’s what we do.
A heart is a terrible symbol to use when you mean "you're totally owning that guy in this argument I'm too cowardly to participate in."— Matt Frost (@mattfrost) November 3, 2015
So, first of all, why has Twitter gone and done this horrific thing? Why has it committed this cosmetic change to the stone tablet that is its product forever?
A company blog post from Akarshan Kumar, a Twitter product manager, pretty much comes out and says it: to attract new users.
“We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite,” he writes. Then he extols the benefits of the bi-atrial flesh drum:
The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.
This is all fine and good. I’m glad that people in the Mountain Time Zone and people on Indian Standard Time can identify Cupid’s sigil. But it continues Twitter’s habit of reacting to a stagnating flagship product with meaningless cosmetic changes. Twitter is still running at a loss and it’s essentially failed to add any new active U.S. users in 2015. Does it really think that’s because new users don’t understand what a star means?
Tech writers at Buzzfeed refer to this impulse, delectably, as dude-fussing. It’s a term that was new to me (and I’m totally a dude-fusser), and it’s how they also categorize the company’s two recent feature additions, polls and “Moments”:
Are you familiar with dude-fussing? It’s when you go camping and someone feels a primal need to poke at the fire every 30 seconds. Or when someone is barbecuing and they cant just leave the fucking burgers alone.
These actions don’t have any real effect. But they are fussy and make a great show of effort at doing something to make it all better.
Indeed. I don’t think this change is going to scare current power users away, though it is going to frustrate them. But I also don’t think it’s going to attract new users to the service, which is what investors badly want.
If you’re interested in the company’s general failure to adapt even as its main product has changed, may I recommend this story from yesterday, by me.
This whole <3 thing is very New Coke.— Rebecca Rosen (@beccarosen) November 3, 2015
As far as the icon of the four-valvéd tissue ticker itself, I don’t mind it. Back in September, when Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook was adding a “Dislike button,” I advised Facebook to augment its thumbs up with a heart:
I wonder if the message that Facebook really wants to convey with a “Dislike” button—which is something like I’m sorry, I sympathize, I feel you—is best conveyed by a heart. The company already slides a thumbs-up next to all its posts, a universal symbol of approval. Why not also insert a cartoonish heart? In various situations, ♥ can represent joy, anguish, empathy, and adoration. Much like the word “friend,” it is already wonderfully multivalent.
Facebook eventually did adopt it—along with a few other symbols. (The feature has already debuted in Ireland and Spain.) And other social software has reconsidered how to shuttle user emotions into icons this year as well. Over the summer, the group-messaging service Slack added emoji reactions, which let any user respond to any message with almost any emoji.
I think we’ll get used to the heart over time. Twitter has suffered interface changes in the past that shaped the core product much more completely. In 2009, users revolted after it changed how replies work. Two years ago, it introduced “blue lines,” which threaded tweets into conversations. Though that feature has never worked perfectly, it’s become key to the service: Without blue lines, we’d never have proper tweetstorms.
The strangest thing about Tuesday’s change is that Twitter’s changed the words it uses to refer to the feature: “Favorites” have become “Likes.” This irks some journalists, as they have to “fave” a lot of things that they don’t actually like. (Imagine trying to bookmark tweets from members of the Islamic State and you can understand their frustration.)
But the fact is there’s no English word that fits how people use the ★ button. There’s no language that captures ★ in all its layered glory because ★ (like the Facebook like or Instagram heart) can mean many things, including a flirty “hello” and a curt “goodbye.” ★, as The New York Times has put it, is a kind of language: “Twitter’s body language.” It’s gestural, it’s phatic, it’s ours.
The great prediction about online social networks is that our emotions would be denuded as they were shuttled into quantification. Your tweet got x many faves, x many retweets, x many link-clicks. That has happened, in part, but our emotions have also deluged and overwhelmed those same quantifiers. At its face, ★ was nothing more than a validate button. But to its sender and receiver, ★ could be a hug, chuckle, or a cold shoulder. As ★s become ♥, as whatever replaces Twitter is itself replaced, that won’t go away.