I’ve been emailing with a small group of people at another organization about a mutual project. You know how this goes. Many of the messages we pass back and forth contain no content, just acknowledgment: Great! or Thanks or Will do. But the other day, I received an unexpected note from one of my collaborators, Jacob. Perhaps note is not the word—I’d sent an email to the group (“Got it!”), and now, apparently, Jacob had responded by sending all of us a picture of confetti. This wasn’t a reply. It was something else: a reaction.
Last October, Google’s Gmail started letting users send emoji reactions to “quickly and creatively acknowledge an email.” That’s what Jacob did: He quickly and creatively informed me that he was in a state of celebration about the fact that I’d understood his prior message. Thus, confetti. I saw this spelled out in my inbox: “🎉 Jacob reacted to your message.” In other words, I got another email.
As a matter of official policy, reactions are supposed to relieve you of the burden of writing out a full response. (“Don’t want to have to create an entire email reply just to send a thumbs up?” Microsoft asked when its emoji feature rolled out at the end of 2022. “Reactions in Outlook is here to help!”) But all of those relieved burdens, taken together, add up to a new one: the duty to react to everything, one way or another. Whether we’re being asked to throw confetti or to laugh or cry, a novel chore has been created, and distributed all across the internet. Now even email—the creakiest, most backward-looking form of online messaging—has been infected by this dreadful make-work.
Traditional replies—that is, new messages, sent in response to an initial one—have been around since just about the start of the email, message boards, and blogs. They seemed all too easy to produce at first, and started showing up in forums by the dozens or the hundreds at a time. In those early days of replying, a lexicon emerged to describe the overuse. We had email storms, and the dangers of reply allpocalypse. New social practices, including moderation and thread-locking, arose to stave them off.
Reactions were meant to be another fix. They arrived in earnest with the Facebook “Like” button, first launched in 2009. See a post you like? Say so without saying so. Soon enough, the “Like” was applied to Facebook comments too. (Prior to Facebook, sites such as Digg and Reddit had their users voting content up and down, but the practice wasn’t yet routine.) Then Mark Zuckerberg unleashed the “Like” button to the entire web, where publishers could embed it on their own articles and product pages. As social networking became social media, other services followed suit, adding favorites into Twitter and giving hearts to Instagram. Reactions spread to smartphones too, especially after Apple gave its iPhone emoji keyboard to the world in 2011. Now people started sending text messages that contained nothing other than a symbol—a reaction in the form of a reply.
By the mid-2010s, reactions were everywhere. BuzzFeed added them (“OMG,” “LOL,” “CUTE”) into its articles—“reacting and sharing media is the best way to express yourself,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said. Apple added “tapbacks”—that is, reactions—to its messaging app. Facebook built out its “Like” button to include five elemental human feelings, among them love, anger, and “haha.” And since 2022, Microsoft has been expanding reaction features in its Office products. You know a trend has truly arrived when Microsoft is doing it.
Reactions became so prevalent, in fact, that they devolved into another kind of reply. The replacement for the noise became the noise. An update to the group-chat software Slack last fall added an “activity” interface that collects substantive replies and emoji reactions alike and turns them into events enumerated for my consideration. Apple’s iMessage is designed to have the same effect. Sometimes I’ll feel my phone buzzing with activity, and then, upon unlocking, I discover that a friend or a family member was only catching up on a group text, politely hearting or bang-banging or thumbs-upping their way through a string of messages.
As reactions spread, their meanings withered. The standard ones—👍 or 😂, say—convey almost nothing now; they’re just another way to say uh-huh. At the same time, the infinity of available emoji has freighted other pictures with occult significance. Does your workplace find a thumbs-up lucid or aggressive? Does one say thank you with a set of folded hands (🙏), or with “ty,” or with something else entirely? Reactions have been absorbed into a culture that exists for its own sake. The major purpose they once had—communicative thrift—has been abandoned.
This pattern is familiar in technology. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan described it as reversal: An automobile gets you where you need to go with total freedom, but then, once everyone is driving, congestion sets in, and nobody can get anywhere. Today’s reactions are the same—so obligatory and profuse that they only slow us down. You react to messages not as a way of saving time but because doing otherwise would be improper, like failing to acknowledge a co-worker in the break room.
The arrival of reactions in our email, of all places, represents their final success and inevitable futility. Adding confetti to a Gmail conversation affirms that reactions underpin the internet—that online life has become reaction-driven in a deep sense. Much of what we make and share online is made or shared precisely in the hope of eliciting emoji. At this point, we’re so overrun with these attempts—with things to make us laugh or cry or throw confetti—that the very work of having a reaction may soon be obsolete.
What is left to react to, or against? More of the same: paperwork to file, projects to revise, schedules to coordinate, greetings to acknowledge, affronts to lament. A reaction once condensed and clarified emotional expression. Now it’s just another thing to do. 🙃
Tyler Fields is your internet guru, delving into the latest trends, developments, and issues shaping the online world. With a focus on internet culture, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies, Tyler keeps readers informed about the dynamic landscape of the internet and its impact on our digital lives.