“Liking” it on Facebook

by Javier de Rivera

The “Like” is one of the most common and successful features on social networking sites. It was the hallmark of Facebook from the beginning, it is the main form of social interaction on Instagram, and Twitter has recently changed the “Fav” by hearts that represent “likes”.

Twitter’s evolution with this feature is particularly interesting. At the beginning of its great expansion in 2009, Favs where being used more as a way to archive relevant tweets, mostly containing links, than to praise a fellow user. At that time, the Fav felt like Internet Explorer’s Favorites, a sort of bookmarking feature for archival purposes. Appreciation and acceptance was shown with words like “thanks!”, “cool!” or “u r great!”, or by old-style emoticons. Along with these, the Retweet was a high form of showing appreciation, which also had the important functionality of disseminating relevant content.

On Facebook, both functionalities – social appreciation and dissemination of valuable content – were always mixed in the “Like”. Although users have always had the option to “Share” content without liking it, it seemed unfair to do it that way… and people usually prefer to share content by showing appreciation at the same time. This overlapping of functionalities may look irrational, but when the main purpose is social interaction, usability is more important than direct ‘rationality’.

In this case, the multiple functionalities of the “Like” increase its relevance as a system feature, which probably has something to do with the success of Facebook. The evolution of Twitter seems to be going in the same direction, by experimenting with the Favs and changing them to Likes, establishing the trend -that started several years ago – for using this feature to show appreciation rather than for archival purposes. Here, overlapping is not possible, by choosing Hearts as a mean of social interaction we are deploying its value as an archival resource: our list of bookmarks would be flooded with the less memorable tweets we chose to mark as an expression of appreciation.

Considering the issue from another perspective, social positive reinforcement is one the most important motivations for humans to act, together with other (social and biological) gratifications such as having sex or eating. All we all really want is to feel valuable, to feel that people like us, that we are relevant, that we worth it; in the end, that is what motivates every human being. There are individual differences in the way we look for it, but, in general, just hearing good comments cheer us up.

For this reason, when these social applications make it so easy to show off or “be ourselves” and still receive attention and “Likes” from other people, they become like sugar candy for our self-esteem and sense of social acceptance. In face to face interaction it is not so easy to show your appreciation for another person, it can feel awkward or inadequate. Nonetheless, the scarcity of social appreciation can be the cause of great suffering.

On the other hand, the sensibility we have towards different forms of positive reinforcement or social appreciation is what defines us as individuals. Some people desperately look for the approval of parental figures, some are crazy about being admired from below, others can rather get the silent admiration of their partner or the sense of belonging to a cohesive group of peers. There are also many people driven by more pragmatical reinforcement experiences, like a pay rise or a good sexual encounter.

Our sensibility towards gratifications and positive reinforcements determines what drives our desire and will; and in the end it is what defines who we really are. If we are most interested in a pay rise or the parental recognition, we might not be as good coworkers as if we were driven by peer acceptance and companionship. What attracts us the most is both our weakness and our strength, and it constitutes the core of our identity.

In social networking sites positive reinforcement is abundant. After all giving a “Like” is easy, does not cost anything and we know the other is going to like it. The only condition for engaging in this positive and inoffensive social interaction is accepting its mechanical nature, and the process of standardizing and quantifying social gratification. By doing so, all the nuances involved in direct gratification – be it face to face, on the phone or by writing – are filtered out and reduced to a simple click.

This is the reason why the standardization of positive reinforcement can be problematic, especially for young users and for those who do not have a strong priority towards the kind of appreciation that they are looking for. It might be that instead of developing a personalized sensibility in the focus of our desire for acceptance – good or bad, but personalized and adapted to our social conditions –  users get used to trade themselves in an abundant market of the equally quantifiable “Likes”. This also transforms positive reinforcement and reputation into a digital/social currency.

The abundance of mechanical positive reinforcements is deployed by commercial social networking sites as a decoy for users, thirst for social acceptance and interaction. After all, we are more likely to return somewhere where we feel accepted and praised, than somewhere where people criticize, despise or ignore us.

The “Likes” have yet another marketing strategic functionality. In order to make users’ information valuable for the market it is important to know what they like, what attracts their attention, and this could eventually help frame them as marketing targets. What they do not like, or the strength of their opinions towards things that happen in the world, lacks an equivalent economic interest. That is why there are no features to develop the negative and dialectic style that is the mark of social criticism.

Everything has to be framed and quantified in a positive way. Protestors can freely gather around a protest page where their “Likes” can be added up. Their “anti” feelings and attitudes get turned upside, “positivized”, and can happily exist side by side with the “pro” feelings of their social rivals. In fact, everything can co-exist – not cohabit – producing different market niches to fulfill the long-tail economy.

Unfortunately, public space means sharing the same ground, experiencing the same reality, all together, instead of parallel virtual realities. We all share the same material world, in which our actions affect each other. There are many issues that are of public interest and should be discussed publicly by the communities that more affected by them.

Allowing people to express their social and political opinions online is great, but that does not serve any purpose if they are unable to discuss and work as a community. The way in which social networking sites work systematically discourage the production of shared realities, collective discourses or social spaces. The positive logic of these commercial sites generates spaces without friction, social interactions without society and networks without community.

Javier de Rivera is a sociologist at University Complutense of Madrid, Spain, with a specialism in the study of new technologies and social media. He is a member of the research group Cibersomosguas.net, Digital culture and Social movement, editor at Teknokultura Journal and professor at the Master CCCD (URJC, Spain). Author of SocialMediaSociology.com


Categories: Digital Sociology

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