Instagram’s 😂 🔥 🎉 Reaction Buttons Are a Scourge

Research shows that a modicum of extra effort in online conversations goes a long way

Photo: Markus Winkler/Unsplash

When Instagram introduced the option to “heart” direct messages in 2015, my personal experience of the platform began its slow, steady descent into hell.

This nosedive accelerated in 2018 when Instagram introduced Quick Reactions to its Stories. Quick Reactions allow audiences to, yes, quickly react with one of eight emoji, including a clapping emoji, a fire emoji, and a crying emoji. These reactions show up in the direct messages folder, alongside actual thoughtful and considered responses to someone’s Story. Facebook introduced Messenger reactions in 2017, while Twitter released a similar feature for its direct messages at the beginning of 2020.

In theory, these private message likes and story reactions should expedite conversations and create clarity, not further confusion. But Quick Reactions are actually a scourge. They say next to nothing, and they’re confusing: If I send someone a DM and they don’t double-tap it, does this mean they hate me? One friend, confirming my paranoia, told me that if she doesn’t double-tap a message, it means she disagrees or doesn’t like it. Still, since this isn’t necessarily a widespread application of the feature, I have to guess who’s giving me the cold shoulder when they don’t heart my message.

Research shows that a modicum of extra effort in online conversations goes a long way. We should be putting more effort into our conversations, not less, particularly when it isn’t that difficult to manually select and send an emoji or two, instead. Sending an emoji requires choosing one out of thousands of options and sending it, rather than quickly “reacting” from, at most, eight total choices. It’s a small difference but, in my mind, a significant one.

Philip Mai, a researcher at the Ryerson University Social Media Lab in Toronto, says social media platforms introduced richer direct messaging because they sensed competition from private messaging apps like Viber and Line, which are popular in Europe and Asia. Instagram and Facebook “are built for public-facing [interactions],” he says. “For them, DM is an afterthought… [they probably have] internal data showing that, hey, more and more people are moseying over to their DMs and the DM sucks.”

That said, some people I talked to for this piece really do like these features. They appreciate that it’s easy to end a conversation with a fraction of the effort required of sending an actual response. “I love them! They help me to acknowledge a message directly with an emotion, almost like body language, while a conversation continues,” says Abby Mahler, a photographer based in Los Angeles. “A React can be a nice way to finalize an interaction without always having to be the one to get in a last word or message.”

Reactions, in theory, act as a form of body language that’s desperately missing from online communication. Its absence, which I’ve written about before, is a real problem that is in dire need of a solution. But for most people, what researchers call “one-click communication” is not enough to fill in this gap. A 2016 study looked at how people react to different forms of communication on Facebook, and likes were the lowest of the low; most participants in the study barely even considered them an interaction at all. The study discovered that likes did not increase the likelihood that a Facebook user would feel closer or better connected to the person who sent it.

Another 2016 study found that “targeted communication” such as comments increased people’s feelings of well-being and their sense of connection with the person who commented. One-click feedback, however, didn’t have any kind of positive effect. An earlier study from the same research team found similar results.

This research fully lines up with my own experience of likes versus comments. A heart in a direct message has no utility other than communicating that you’ve seen and feel neutral to positive about what someone just said, essentially acting as a read receipt with the unfortunate side effect of causing a notification for something that says nothing. A Quick Reaction at least has a bit more specificity, but even still, it’s disappointing to open up my direct messages, expecting to see an interesting, thoughtful, or funny response from a friend, and instead only see they responded with a half-hearted thumbs up.

Nune Grigoryan, an assistant professor of communication at Cabrini University in Pennsylvania, says some people (like me) have more negative responses to likes, faves, and reactions as opposed to actual comments and messages because of our personalities and backgrounds. “If you look into how people with trauma and traumatic situations look at reactions, they really find that likes or reactions, in general, are not adequate for communication,” she says. One 2019 study found that when people on Facebook post negative news about traumatic life events, “weak ties” — meaning acquaintances and casual friends — are more likely to respond with one-click communication rather than a comment. The lack of effort required to react to someone’s sad Facebook post could imply to the poster that the responder doesn’t care about them. The reaction essentially backfires. Though the best response would be an actual comment expressing sincere sentiment (“I’m so sorry that happened to you. Sending ❤”), in lieu of that, it might be better to respond with nothing at all.

Traumatized folks are not the only people walking around hating direct messages hearts and Instagram Story Quick Reactions. “Instagram Story Quick Reactions make me super uncomfortable. I turned them off because I feel like they make people feel obligated to react to a Story, and I feel extra weird if I share something social justice-oriented or similar and people clap for it,” says Cassandra Gonzalez, a health coach based in Amsterdam. “However, I also feel rude not reacting to other people’s Stories when they have the option up because I feel like they want the validation. It’s a mess all around!”

Reporter Julia Reinstein wrote the Instagram direct message fave “must be destroyed” in a 2018 BuzzFeed article. “In spite of its ostensible handiness (who hasn’t felt socially obligated to reply to a DM but had nothing of substance to say?), the heart’s easy tappability has led to countless social media horror stories,” she says, going on to chronicle such nightmarish incidents, like that of one woman who accidentally double-tapped an ex’s old DM. And in a 2018 piece for New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, Madison Kircher Malone wrote that “Instagram Quick Reactions Are Trying To Ruin My Life.” In the piece, Malone discusses how she accidentally reacted to a friend’s yoga-themed Instagram story with a crying reaction. “I’m right-handed and hold my phone while watching Instagram Stories in such a way that I frequently errantly send” the crying face reaction and the 100 reaction, both of which are on the right side of the Story screen.

Grigoryan says these types of mistakes are one of the aspects of Instagram Stories most in need of improvement. It’s absurdly easy to accidentally react to someone’s Story, she says: “There are cases when people have just opened the story, and then there was a story about someone who passed away, and they accidentally clicked on the laughing emoji.” Further, Stories are public-facing, yet unlike with Instagram posts, reactions go to the poster’s DMs. “I don’t always want to get a DM from somebody who is reacting,” she says. “Because then I feel like I have a message, which is what I expect from the DM, and I’m going to talk to someone or I’m going to respond to something. And then you’re just like, ‘Oh, it was just a reaction.’” A separate folder, specifically for reactions, would solve this issue, she says.

Mai thinks Instagram Story Reactions would be better if they were more customizable. Reactions are “now the new form of body language, in a way. But that’s why people feel that those reactions are a bit restrictive — because they don’t show the full gamut of available human emotion,” he says. “Here is a menu of choices, but you can create your own, mix and match. To me, that would be more interesting because even though I’m on the same platform, the way I personally use a platform might be different.” This customizability might be one reason why I find Memoji so delightful — even in their sticker form, which is similar to a reaction (though, crucially, less automatic and more effortful), I’m still getting a very personal, even cute response, even though it’s just an image and not a lengthy message.

If a communicative device obscures rather than clarifies the tone or meaning in a message, it’s not worth employing. The very existence of DM hearts, in particular, heightens the level of uncertainty in our online conversations, and it’s simply unnecessary. If I have strong feelings about what you have to say, I will, as many adults coach their young children, “use my words.” Or, at the very least, I’ll send you a Memoji.

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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