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Last year, Facebook launched a new Care reaction amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But what does it mean to care in a digital space and in a time of mourning?

In April 2020, Facebook introduced a new “Care” reaction to its platform in the form of a smile emoji hugging a heart. This was the first new reaction since 2015, when Like was joined by Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry. Now, in the face of rising pandemic numbers, Facebook was—perhaps belatedly—giving users the option to express empathy. Facebook tech communications manager Alexandru Voica first tweeted out the image alongside a purple pulsating heart (to be unveiled on Facebook Messenger) as “a way for people to share their support for one another during this unprecedented time.” Whether Care stemmed from the embattled company’s altruism or opportunism, the very act of hugging during the pandemic—so hard to conceptualize in the digital and so necessary in the physical—was the thing people needed and yet were unable to do.

Facebook had been planning a seventh reaction for a few years, following the success of the 2015 suite. In the company blog post, “Can I Get a Hug? The Story of Facebook’s Care Reaction,” product manager Misbah Uraizee explains that, even before the pandemic, they thought, “Love already works really well,” but needed to “find a reaction that can work for use cases where it’s not purely about love, like when someone wants to show an emotion like sympathy, support, or care. Something beyond Love.” The design team figured a hug would be the best way to convey this, but the attempts at a hug emoji were always “a spectacular failure. It just doesn’t track. It looks like jazz hands, or being excited, or two gummi bears squished together. […] Then came COVID-19. And very quickly, this seventh reaction became more urgent.” Although seemingly an inconsequential Facebook update, the Care reaction is part of a broader story about the need for and cultivation of embodied care across online and offline worlds.

Around the time that Care was introduced, we were in the beginning stages of a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research project out of George Washington University, Rituals in the Making, investigating sudden changes in funerary and memorialization practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were grappling with a similar problem: How do individuals and communities provide support, closeness, and love (in a word, care) during times of grief, especially when we cannot physically gather for rituals of remembrance and memorialization? How are these practices translated, adapted, or recreated in digital spaces like Facebook, whether in a funeral livestream or a memorial page?

From meme to memorial

The introduction of the Care reaction and its adoption by Facebook users speaks to how the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted innovations—often by virtue of necessity—in expressing emotion, touch, and human connection within digital spaces. At the same time, this empathetic emoji exemplifies how attempts to cultivate embodied forms of care come with limitations as well as negotiations over conventions of use. The creativity and friction of this process comes starkly into view when the somber space of memorialization encounters the performative and often playful spaces of Facebook. For instance, and in true internet form, Care quickly became a meme as users replaced the heart with cultural objects from cartoon characters to celebrities to automatic weapons. An online rumor started that it was secretly a hate group symbol, after a fake Anti-Defamation League poster circulated through social media claiming Care had been coopted by white nationalist groups. Over time, the reaction’s intended use—as a way to show support—overtook the initial internet mischief, but there does not appear to be any consensus about how users should ideally employ the reaction.

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Illustration of an emoji

Alongside the memification and conspiracy theorizing, a more mundane form of contention took place as Facebook users negotiated the conventions of when, where, and how the new emoji should be used. In the context of the pandemic, the occasions and contexts of online interaction could also be quite unfamiliar, as users were forced to integrate digital media into contexts that traditionally preclude them. In July 2020, we attended a communal mourning event put on by an organization called COVID Memorial and livestreamed via Facebook. The event marked the grim milestone of 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States. Organizers had collected photographs and brief memorial texts from families of the deceased, which they then projected in succession on a large wall in Washington, DC. These projected memorials occupied the Facebook window in alternating close-up and wide shots of the wall for the majority of the event. At the top-left corner, a running tally displayed how many people were watching the stream at a given moment—a regular reminder of digitality. Occasionally, a passerby would walk across the bottom of the frame, punctuating the lack of corporeality. In the comment box on the right-hand side of the screen, messages rolled in from bereaved family members and mourners who expressed—alongside frustrations with the federal response to COVID-19—a deep appreciation for having this space to grieve and honor loved ones.

Midway through the memorial, one attendee notes how she “saw my daddy on the wall.” Another mourner reacts with Love, while a third reacts with Care. Seeing a memorial to one’s father projected on the wall, while eliciting comfort and appreciation, is also a reminder of a life lost—social media users fashioning the platform as a space of loss and mourning. This brief interchange—the comment, the reactions, and the complex context in which this interaction takes place—reflects the limitations of reactions but also the specific way that Care provides a different digital experience. When the mourner reacts with Love, this could mean a few things: that they love the comment, that they love the original poster, that they knew and loved the victim on the wall, or even that they have a general feeling of love regarding the event. Reactions face limits in these layered situations because they are unidirectional by design—“I feel this about something.” But Care does something else; it is relational. Care says, “I feel empathy toward you.” It creates an affective space for both the original poster and the reactor.

Communication, emotion, and text

On January 13, the New York Times published a profile about families of people incarcerated in the United States who had died of COVID-19. When the Times posted the article to Facebook, commenters offered condolences—many eliciting Care reactions—as well as condemnations of the private prison system. However, a slew of comments condemned the incarcerated individuals or curtly replied with some iteration of “do the crime, do the time,” often generating Likes or even Haha reactions. In response, one reader pointed to the underlying assumptions that all incarcerated people were guilty or that sentencing was commensurate with the crime: “A lack of compassion plus absolute judgement before understanding is a tragedy. Let’s be humans.” Affixed to the post were Likes, Love, and Sad reactions, but not Care, despite the post’s explicit calls for compassion and empathy. Here is another moment in which Facebook users collectively negotiated the meaning and use of the reaction. Unlike the condolences for bereaved families or the COVID Memorial, the commenter’s intervention carved a space that was far more deliberative than affective, though these categories are often difficult to untangle. A contributor to the thread could, for example, like the sentiment expressed by the initial commenter, but to respond with the new reaction, as if to say, “I care about this issue,” was to misuse the emoji. The 215 reactors on the thread—none of whom utilize Care—demonstrated an understanding that the new emoji should instead be reserved for moments of intersubjective, affective connection, such as an empathetic expression during a moment of collective mourning.

Emoji turned such textual characters into visual illustration, and later animation, further cementing the pairing of online communication with the representation of a human visage.

While Facebook classifies Like, Love, Care, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry as “reactions” because of their intended use on the platform—reacting to posts—they fit under the larger category of emoji: small digital icons used to express an emotion, e.g., 🙂, 🙁, 😲. Emoji evolved from earlier emoticons, which similarly expressed emotion, but through available textual tools, e.g., : ) , : ( , : o. The first emoticon is often traced to 1982, when a bulletin board user at Carnegie Mellon University proposed : – ) as a marker for comments intended to be jokes. This was an attempt at fixing what is still one of the most persistent issues of online communication: the inability to express tone. But it was not the first time someone used textual tools in this way. In a Baltimore Evening Sun piece from 1964, journalist Ralph Reppert describes his aunt’s habit of typing an approximation of “tongue in cheek” in her letters to him with this example: “Your Cousin Vernie is a natural blonde again —).” In an interview with the New York Times in 1969, novelist Vladimir Nabokov asserts, “There should exist a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.” If we go even further back, the short story writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce suggested in 1887, “An improvement in punctuation—a snigger point, or note of cachinnation. It is written thus ⌣ and represents, as nearly as may be, a smiling mouth.”

These examples all try to tackle the difficulty in conveying certain nuances of communication through the written word in a strikingly similar way: they all illustrate a human face; they embody the text. Emoticons proliferated, evolving into kaomoji (a text-based Japanese emoticon) and embodying text in more outrageous and detailed ways to express excitement \(^o^)/, ambivalence ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, and even shame (-_-). Emoji turned such textual characters into visual illustration, and later animation, further cementing the pairing of online communication with the representation of a human visage. Instead of expressing emotion through linguistic meaning, they use an embodied emotive semiotics. The previous reaction choices—liking and loving, being sad or angry, laughing and saying wow—are all overtly communicated affective statements, and can thus be approximated with a facial cue. But Care, being relational, is interactive, which requires some phatic direction on the part of the poster. Kaomoji are more versatile than emoji in this respect because they can involve more of the body (namely, arms) and can implicate action. There is even a kaomoji hug—(つ ^_^ )つ—but it communicates “I need a hug” or “I am reaching out to hug you,” rather than Care’s “I am hugging you,” so it remains unidirectional. The key difference here, both in terms of textual embodiment and communicated intent is the representation of not only the hugging body, but the hug’s recipient, and thus, the hug itself. Emoji and kaomoji can communicate the intent to hug, but in a digital sense Care is a hug.

Embodying care

For one family-owned funeral home in northeastern DC, Facebook is the platform of choice for streaming celebrations of life and homegoings, traditional funeral services among African American Christian congregations. A mobile phone—at times portrait orientation, other times landscape—typically streams from the rear of a red-carpeted church with burnished wooden pews or a smaller chapel with cushioned chairs. The stream captures small groups of mourners seated at a distance with the casket visible in the frame’s background. In the comments, virtual attendees share a memory or a simple “Amen,” perhaps flanked by Pray (folded hands) emojis. The Care reaction is nowhere to be seen in the comments; instead, it serves as a reaction to the livestreamed event or the archived video of the service. This convention of practice begs the question of whether the Care reaction attempts to communicate something lexical or whether it instead might convey something else: an embodied presence or disposition in digital space.

In the anthropological study of funerary and mourning rituals, some scholars such as Douglas J. Davies have emphasized the importance of the verbal, or “words against death.” Yet our interviews with bereaved families, religious leaders, celebrants, and funeral directors have brought into sharp relief how integral the body and senses are to remembering the dead and grappling with grief. One funeral home director in Pennsylvania recalled that in spring 2020, several families who had lost an elderly relative asked for open-casket viewings because they simply had not seen or touched their loved one for months due to strict restrictions on long-term care facilities. One celebrant asked virtual funeral attendees to bring a smooth stone or piece of cloth to the service to hold onto: “It becomes the only tangible. You do not get to walk past the coffin. You do not get to hug the bereaved, but you have this physical representation, something you can look at and touch and then release.”

In this context, we might understand the Care reaction as a continuation, perhaps even a new step, in finding ways of representing embodiment and sensory experience in digital space. It is the first reaction to incorporate the intended recipient in the picture. Unlike the rest of the reaction repertoire comprising faces, hands, and hearts, the Care reaction is a full torso hugging a heart. The embrace signals the link between care and physical touch, an association brought into focus in the context of social distancing and pandemic confinement. So instead of simply animating a face feeling an emotion (Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry) or an indexical object (the Like hand and Love heart), Care portrays a face with arms standing for the reacting user hugging a heart, which represents the original poster of the comment. With the Care reaction, users are interacting—not just reacting—to a comment’s author in a tactile, relational way.


For our team, the Facebook Care reaction provides a window into a process that is not wholly new but has taken center stage since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—namely, how embodied experience and affective forms of interconnection are both facets of our online and offline worlds. What we have found—both in online approximations of offline practice and in traditionally offline rituals that have migrated online—is that people in mourning seek the very thing digital space precludes: human touch. Facebook’s Care reaction works toward creating a new digital way to hold and be held. Our intention is not to commend Facebook or overlook its problematic practices around user data, harmful content, misinformation, and digital surveillance. The meaning of the Care reaction is not stable across virtual spaces. Like all of the reactions, its varied usages are the basis for often heated negotiations of communicative protocols on social media. We look to this emoji of the embrace to better understand an effort by users to communicate something more—a bodily disposition, an affective response, an empathetic relation—through the affordances of digital space.

Grief is relational, funeral directors tell us. Supporting those in mourning takes not only the right words but a particular bodily disposition or comportment. They say that sitting with families in shared spaces before any ritual undertaking is done or even discussed, is often among the most important services they offer. It establishes a relationship of care. One interviewee referred to this as time to “love on” the mourners. We are a grief-stricken world right now, we are in mourning, and we can’t touch each other. We can’t yet sit in shared spaces to love on each other and be loved on. And whatever feelings we may have about the politics of Big Tech and Facebook’s role in numerous nefarious happenings in recent years, it has introduced a feature that allows us to love on from a distance.

This research is being done through the Anthropology Department at The George Washington University, and is funded by the National Science Foundation under the title Funerary Practices, Pandemic Confinement, and the Implications for COVID-19 Transmission (BCS-2029839). For more information, visit ritualsinthemaking.com.

Authors

Devin Proctor

Devin Proctor is an assistant professor of anthropology at Elon University. His research and teaching focuses on the ways the internet and other mediating technologies influence how we construct identities and understand our bodies

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at The George Washington University. His research focuses on cultural production, media networks, and infrastructures, particularly as they shape experiences of place and belonging.

Cite as

Proctor, Devin and Tariq Adely. 2021. “Care by Emoji.” Anthropology News website, June 23, 2021.

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