How Middle School Subverted Instagram’s Slider Emoji Tool

The company’s good intentions aren’t enough to stop abuse

Co-authored with Rory Selinger

MMiddle school is hell. That’s why the R-rated movie Eighth Grade, a dramedy whose main character is a social media-savvy teen, was celebrated as an opportunity for parents and kids to talk honestly about all kinds of uncomfortable subjects, including “mean-girl behavior.” (And yes, of course, boys can be just as obnoxious and backstabbing as girls, even if that phrase has become shorthand for relational aggression since 2004.)

Currently, middle school kids (and probably others as well) are egging on their classmates to answer a baited question online: How much do you think I like you? Spoiler alert: This existential land mine, filled with questionable consent mechanisms, hasn’t become a trend because it’s a confidence-boosting exercise.

We’re going to shed some light on what this mind-reading quiz means in our first dad-daughter collaboration. I’m a fortysomething philosophy professor who teaches and writes about ethics and technology, and my daughter Rory is in seventh grade. Dadsplaining may be involved.

Subversive slider

The folks at Instagram can take comfort in the cliche that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, because they clearly imagined a different future when they rolled out the new slider emoji in May 2018. The press release emphasized posing “fun” and “nuanced” questions to your followers, like “how 🔥an artist’s new single is” or “how 🌶️ they like their food.”

Lots of good design boxes get checked off with this feature. It’s intuitive, simple, and visually rich. The sliding continuum allows for a range of answers and diverse emojis add context and emotional tone, and its versatility makes it a good tool for tapping the wisdom of the crowds. So far, so good.

But flash forward to today, and it turns out that the versatility is both a good and a bad thing. Some of the bad uses are predictable and have taken a page from something teens are very familiar with: the subvert Snapchat playbook. Remember when Snapchat was first released in the App Store back in 2011? The hype surrounding ephemeral messaging almost seemed to promise to revive online privacy, because users thought their communications would disappear forever; this wasn’t total well-wishing or naivete, since Snapchat actively encouraged the false belief. Eventually, the Federal Trade Commission determined that the company “deceived consumers with promises about the disappearing nature of messages sent through the service.” One of the big problems for surprised Snapchat users were third-party apps that made it easy to take undetected screenshots — screenshots that allow information to linger and circulate far beyond its expiration date.

A version of this is happening with the emoji slider poll. Kids at Rory’s school are using it to ask: “How much do you think I like you?” Then, they’re posting the results of each individual kid’s answer. How? Not by using an official poll tool, but by sharing a screenshot.

There’s an extra-special subversive twist here, one that’s optimized to spread misery. They’re not just posting clean screenshots, but are adding new information. They’re marking down how much they actually like the person who took the risk of being publicly judged — putting on clear display, for everyone to see, the difference between how much a person thought she was valued and the real deal.

It’s ironic that this tool was created by Instagram. Instagram is owned by Facebook, a company that famously invented the “like” button while resisting a “dislike” button because of the associated risks, including disengagement and cyberbullying.

Oh, you thought I liked you this much? Sorry, not sorry. But I like you way less. Thanks for playing, though.

Rory’s going to explain how she’s seen these polls used in her middle school.

Evan: Why are kids creating these polls?

Rory: It could be one of two things. The first could be people are trying to give others the opportunity to tell them how they think you feel about them. It’s giving the account owner a chance to fix a “beef,” become better friends, or just show you really care. The second more plausible reason could be that people are trying to show others they have power over them, the power to define what the relationship is and whether or not a real friendship exists.

Why are kids responding to these polls?

You take a risk when you participate — you make yourself vulnerable. But kids are willing to put themselves out there because they want to be told they’re liked, and they want everyone to know they’re fitting in.

So, this is about friendship and not dating?

Yes.

How honest should kids be when saying how much or little they really like someone?

It depends which end of the spectrum you’re talking about. If you like someone less than they responded, just leave their response as it is. Or, write a sidenote on the post that says, “I don’t really know you and would like to get to know you better.” If they answer lower than you like them, you should raise the scale to the appropriate amount. If the amount is marginal in either way, leave the line where it is.

Are kids following these recommendations?

Not really, they’re being blunt and brutally honest. Some kids who respond to the polls will slide the line up a decent amount. In response, I’ve seen users bring the line completely down. This hasn’t happened to me personally but it’s common and I could see why it would be humiliating.

Is this bullying?

No, it’s not bullying. Yes, people are being mean. But if you participate in a poll, you’re giving consent for someone else to give their opinion of you — whatever that opinion is. As soon as you slide up, you’re giving others permission to tear you apart.

Is consent a problem, because it shields people from the consequences of being hurtful?

Yes, if the person being “attacked” brings this up with a teacher, principal, or another authority figure, the person who was cruel can give the excuse that the person who is upset didn’t have to respond to the poll.

RRecent research by the Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 say that “social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives.” But at the same time, 45 percent replied that “they feel overwhelmed by all the drama on social media,” with 13 percent saying they feel this way “a lot.”

We both think that Instagram meant well, but good intentions aren’t enough to stop abuse. It just isn’t surprising that mean-spirited emoji-slider polls are being created. We all know that the dynamics of digital devices complicate how we interact, and that social media can bring out the worst of our social tendencies.

The history of technology has taught us that designers can’t determine how people will interact with their products. Humans are too creative to be constrained by anticipated uses. Middle schoolers, with access to the same technology as adults, are no exception to the rule: Designers’ expectations will be broken.

Prof. Philosophy at RIT. Latest book: “Re-Engineering Humanity.” Bylines everywhere. http://eselinger.org/

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