Universal Norms

Recently I was reading this post by the Facebook design team discussing the evolution of their new “Reactions” feature. It’s a neat article about their design process and the motivations behind the feature, but one thing in particular stuck out to me:

The whole point of expanding reactions is to have a universally understood vocabulary with which anyone can better and more richly express themselves. […]

Reactions should be universally understood. Reactions should be understood globally, so more people can connect and communicate together.

At the core this is an OK goal: “universally” understood ideally means any other person in the world should share the same meaning of a Reaction with you. But there are a few problems with this:

As Patrick Dubroy pointed out on Twitter, “7 icons is not about ‘a universally understood [vocabulary with] which anyone can better & more richly express themselves.’” They may be fine icons, but they’re a far too limited palette to express very much.

More troubling to me is at best, aiming for a universal norm homogenizes cultures into a lowest common denominator situation. We have so many cultures around the world, such a rich diversity of ideas, beliefs, and ways of living. I’m personally quite unfamiliar with most of the world’s cultures, but the solution to that isn’t to genericize them or translate them into my culture, the solution is to help me understand them as they are.

If all I ever see represented from other cultures are the things they have in common with mine, I’m never going to learn about what makes those other cultures different or special. I’m never going to empathize with them or the people who participate in them. All I’m going to do is reinforce what I already know, and the cultures I don’t know better will remain “other” to me.

Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” but distilling the diversity of all people and cultures down to seven genercized icons is no way to do this. If you want to make the world more open and connected, then you have to give people the means for empathy and understanding.

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