Downvotes Might Finally Ruin Twitter

Image: filo/Getty Images

I am staunchly against emoji reactions in online communication. In Instagram direct messages, reaction responses weaken conversations and compel participants to be lazy communicators. One-click communication, as likes and reactions are sometimes called, is cheap: easy to use, but you get what you pay for.

So when news came out that Twitter is currently testing adding reactions, including downvotes and upvotes, to tweets (not just in DMs, where they currently aggravate), my hackles rose — until I really thought about it for a minute. Part of what makes private DM reactions frustrating is that people use them, essentially, as read receipts, yet unlike read receipts, which I actually appreciate, they elicit a notification that implies you’re going to receive a message from somebody, only to see that, yes, your conversation partner saw your message. Cool. (After I wrote my story bemoaning DM reactions, Instagram changed its design so that reactions do not create notifications or show up as traditional messages.)

But public-facing reactions on Twitter, according to experts I spoke to, could potentially make the platform a more rewarding and emotionally rich experience. A “like,” which Twitter currently and somewhat confusingly denotes with a heart, has ambiguous meaning, particularly since Twitter likes were once “faves” represented by stars. If I like a tweet, does that mean I like the tweet? That I’m bookmarking it for later perusal? That I agree with what the tweet says? This is complicated by negative tweets. If an acquaintance tweets that they were laid off, what does it communicate if I like the tweet? Unclear.

A well-designed suite of emotive reactions could make it easier for Twitter users to communicate with each other and foster relationships they might otherwise feel uncomfortable building. But there are also potential downsides. They could erode the quality of dialogue and create lazy Twitter users, as with the DM reactions. And negative reactions could make it easier for people on Twitter to bully and harass others.

Image: @jdm0079

Research shows that while one-click communication sucks, reactions are better than likes — at least on Facebook. A 2019 study found that reactions help acquaintances and casual friends respond to negative posts on Facebook. The reactions make it easier to express support or care for a connection a user doesn’t know very well who’s going through a rough time. With reactions, users feel more comfortable engaging in what researchers call “social grooming,” or tending to relationships in the hope that the efforts will strengthen these bonds.

The trouble with reactions, though, is that they might not: The study notes that using a reaction on a negative post could imply to the poster that the person reacting doesn’t care enough to leave a comment. If I posted on Facebook that I lost my job, I’m probably going to feel more supported by people who commented with their condolences or offered to help than by those who merely left a sad or angry reaction. So, yes, the reaction is better than nothing, and it’s also better than a simple like. But again: You get what you pay for.

“There are a lot of people on Twitter that might want to engage but are otherwise not doing so because there’s some kind of barrier to commenting. It feels like such a big effort, and people are worried about how it will be received,” says Yvette Wohn, PhD, an associate professor of human computer interaction at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who has studied Facebook reactions. But on the other hand, she says, “Maybe the fact that we don’t have the broad reaction options on Twitter is what’s allowing us to engage in more commenting.”

Wohn says she generally feels that implementing reactions on Twitter could be a positive addition, leading to more nuance and more ways for people to express themselves. Still, she says, it’s uncertain how it could turn out, and it’s critical for Twitter to think deeply about the impacts — both positive and negative—these new designs could have on users.

“When Facebook introduced reactions, that actually cut down on some of the commenting across Facebook,” says Rebecca Hayes, PhD, an associate professor of communication at Illinois State University, though she notes that the data she’s referencing is a few years old. Hayes says this leads her to speculate that reactions could reduce tweet responses, but this might not necessarily be a bad thing, as often what people have to say on Twitter is not particularly positive. “If I have 12 angry reactions, it’s probably not going to impact me as psychologically as twelve angry replies,” she says. “If I had to choose, I would prefer to receive a downvote rather than one of those horrible comments that, like, [New York Times technology reporter] Taylor Lorenz gets.”

Downvotes and dislikes give me considerably more pause than the positive or neutral reactions set, like “funny” or “support.” On the one hand, as Hayes mentions, a dislike reaction isn’t quite as heartbreaking as someone tweeting at you that they hate you, or worse. But the ease with which someone can leave a dislike reaction versus going to the effort to make a rude comment could mean people are more likely to spread negativity on the platform. Further complicating things is the design that Twitter decides to employ with its reactions. The 2019 study mentioned earlier notes that Facebook’s reactions design, in which users hover over the “like” button to view reactions, compels users to be more mindful of their reactions usage. The hovering effect acts as friction, forcing the user to consider for a brief second whether they want to leave an angry reaction.

“Maybe instead of crafting a thoughtful tweet, people are just going to be clicking these little buttons, running the risk of making conversations on Twitter shallow and devoid of nuance,” says Zivvy Epstein, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. The addition of colorful, emotive reactions could make Twitter more like a slot machine, Epstein says, in which “you’re just kind of clicking through, not really having a real conversation, not thinking deeply, but instead just kind of gamifying.”

That said, Epstein is not totally against reactions or even dislikes and downvotes. Receiving a downvote or a dislike would be a bit like being ratioed, he says. “If you get ratioed, that is another kind of empirical metric for how trash your tweet is, basically. I would imagine that there’d be a similar metric based on the number of downvotes or the ratio of downvotes to upvotes.”

Reddit is obviously the closest analogy for a website that appears to employ downvotes in a way that’s positive for the community. Reddit’s downvote mechanisms help keep conversations on track; irrelevant or offensive Reddit posts get downvoted by other members of the subreddit, which sends the comment down to the bottom of the conversation thread. “I do believe that a big part of what makes Reddit really cool is this downvoting mechanism,” Epstein says. “Reddit kind of forces its users to be a little bit more accountable and a little more thoughtful,” because users don’t want to get downvoted.

Twitter’s quote-tweet mechanism, in which a user reposts another user’s tweet to their own feed with a comment, has in many ways made Twitter worse. It allows Twitter users to easily cyberbully less powerful accounts and encourages people to dunk on idiots or bad actors, thus further amplifying their negative or toxic message. But Reddit has so far not adopted such a feature, which has helped stave off some of the toxicity that spreads on Twitter. A Twitter downvote option could act as a counterweight to the often poisonous quote tweet, restoring balance to the platform.

Wohn agrees that Reddit communities generally tend to benefit from upvote and downvote mechanisms. Still, she notes that Twitter is unique and difficult to compare to any other platform, which makes it hard to predict how reactions and voting features would affect it.

Reddit’s voting system is used more responsibly because the subreddits are self-governed communities united by users who care about the same thing. Healthy conversations keep these smaller (relative to Twitter) communities active; the voting mechanisms, which indicate to others in the community whether their comments are relevant or okay, help enforce these rules that ensure the subreddit’s survival.

“Reddit is kind of like your community pool, right? Like, you can have your own rules about how you operate this pool,” Wohn says. “That’s different from Twitter, which is like the ocean.”

Twitter told me that the reaction and downvote surveys are still in the “exploratory” stage. The screenshot below implies that Twitter is at least considering how someone would react if they got downvoted.

Image: @jdm0079

Nicholas Brody, PhD, an associate professor of communication at the University of Puget Sound, says downvoting could potentially make it easier for Twitter users to cyberbully each other — but it could also make it easier for people to fight back. “We already see some users wield the power of their followers to lash out, and downvoting would just be another tool for doing so,” he says, adding that the feature could also encourage throngs of anonymous trolls to attack. But on the other hand, the feature could encourage bystanders “to take action without fear of retribution or for collectively suppressing hateful or dangerous content before Twitter has the chance to react.”

I nervously anticipate what the company decides to do, since it’s difficult to predict the impact of these features. “This definitely matters for us. People who spend a lot of time on Twitter, these things could have a lot of impact for us,” Epstein says. “These design interventions, they may seem on the fringes. It’s like, oh, there’s a new weird little emoji—how kind of frivolous is that? But I think these things deeply matter.”

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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