Facebook is building a better emoticon system 

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Whether it’s posting pictures of breakfast or “liking” a petition on immigration reform, Facebook has become one of the primary vessels through which we express emotions. Which may explain why company executives hired a team of UC Berkeley researchers to expand the network’s “emotional palette.”

Engineering Director Arturo Bejar recruited staff from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center to serve as paid consultants. Their latest is a more nuanced emoticon. Well, 16 of them.

Center founder Dacher Keltner borrowed the idea from Charles Darwin, who identified 52 emotional states that humans can signal in facial expressions. Keltner deputized Pixar artist Matt Jones to illustrate them, and the resulting drawings served as a blueprint for Facebook’s new “Finch” emoticon app, which the company rolled out on iOS and Android platforms last week. The impetus, Keltner says, was to make communication on Facebook “as emotionally rich as possible.”

But there’s a broader technological impulse, and it has to do with Facebook’s interest in refining its economy of “likes” and taste-based preferences. Last year, Facebook introduced a search function based entirely on compiling “likes,” which let the company finally compete with Google. Thumbs-up signs — and now, smiley faces — are the metrics Facebook uses to sort its user data. So an app that expresses taste in a more nuanced way could be an incredible asset as Facebook broadens its digital empire.

It’s unclear how Facebook intends to use its new emoticons. What is clear, though, is that it will perform better the more it refines its mechanisms for expressing taste.

With a more vast repertory of emotional variations at its disposal, Facebook will be able to tell a lot more about user tastes than it could with the like button, says University of Utah assistant professor Robert Gehl, who has published several papers on “liking” as a revenue stream.

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