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May 24, 2017

Thanksgiving in May

By Brett Yates

Earlier this month, in anticipation of Mother’s Day, Facebook introduced a seventh reaction emoji: the controversial “purple flower,” signifying thankfulness. In fact, it was a reintroduction, this time suggesting an annual springtime rollout, like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg at Easter, following its first appearance in May of 2016.

As you well know, the six standard reaction emojis on Facebook consist of a thumbs-up, a heart, a laughing face, a surprised face, a crying face, and a glaring face. Officially, the meanings of these images, respectively, are “Like,” “Love,” “Haha,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Angry.” My impression is that, in 2017, the purple flower—whose official meaning, again, was “Thankful”—managed to stick around amid this illustrious bunch a little longer than it had in 2016, starting (I think) around May 8 and finally disappearing around May 17, prompting some users to wonder whether the addition might be permanent.

The intentions behind the purple flower were noble: coinciding with a national holiday celebrating motherhood, it was supposed to allow Facebookers to express gratitude for their moms. But how exactly would that work? Were you supposed to post an image of your mother (or a message about her) and then “react” with purple-flower thankfulness to your own story? This, obviously, would be a modern-day equivalent of the age-old sin of “liking your own status.” Wouldn’t the post itself express the intended gratitude? Or were you supposed to purple-flower some random status update by your mom on Mother’s Day, which, in this rare case, would symbolize your feelings not for that particular post but for the poster herself? Or were you supposed to go around being thankful for other people’s moms, when their inevitable tributes appeared on your feed? The only really viable way to use the flower to communicate gratitude for your own mom, I guess, would have been to allow someone else to post about her first and then to use the new emoji to show your thankfulness for the post’s subject.

But in that case, wouldn’t the heart icon have sufficed? Do you love your mom, or are you thankful for her?

What is “thankfulness,” anyway? Is it the sentimental form of being in debt—or a specific type of debt, where it never gets repaid except in words? Is it an actual sensation, or is it a recognition that a positive sensation should justly exist, where your “thankfulness” functions as an objective acknowledgment of happy circumstances whose pleasure is, for whatever reason, inaccessible to you as the bodily tingle of Like or Love?

Imagine that it’s a sunny, warm day, with only the mildest of breezes, and you’re sitting on a blanket in a scenic meadow, and you’re having a picnic. The food and wine are delicious. All your best friends and favorite family members are present. No insects are bothering you. How do you feel right now? Do you feel happy, or do you feel thankful? In some sense, the latter strikes me as a fearful, almost puritanical version of the former, where the enjoyment of the gifts before you is undercut by a question of personal worthiness; some awareness that the bounty of your life owes largely to good luck, that you haven’t particularly earned it; and a deistic dread that it could all be snatched away at any time.

“This is so great,” you say, nervously keeping score as you gnaw gourmet cheese. For now you’re in the lead, but it might not stay that way. Can you still taste the Gouda?

Thankfulness is an interpretation, not a sensation. By mid-May, Facebook users were affixing purple flowers all over the social network; soon enough, it had nothing to do with mothers—they were thankful for everything, until the flower’s eventual disappearance elicited a few glaring faces. Facebook hadn’t realized that it’d invented a new, mildly less obnoxious iteration of the much-maligned “blessed” hashtag craze of 2013. “Thankful” was the only Facebook reaction that, rather than purely channeling emotion, represented a philosophical stance—a position of humility and mindfulness. Since the foremost addiction of the internet is virtue signaling, it would have gradually replaced Like and Love entirely if it hadn’t been pulled. Today, I’m thankful for the prohibitive wisdom of Mark Zuckerberg.

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