In this episode
Like buttons are everywhere. But is liking really all that likeable? We investigate it all, from zero likes to like hiding. With a touch of proper hedonism.
Hello and welcome to The Essay on Vulnerable By Design. A moment to pause, step back and reflect on the things that make us vulnerable. I am Chris Onrust. Today’s episode is all about the like.
You like potatoes, I like rice. You like the mountains. I’m more of a flatland sort of person. You’re into Gothic Revival, but I prefer the Brutalist side of things. And when it comes to Pink Fluffy Unicorns, obviously we are both fans.
A like or liking, technically, is a process of finding something agreeable, enjoyable or satisfactory. And knowing what you do and do not like can be exquisitely helpful in navigating the world.
Generally, we are more drawn to things we enjoy, or know we enjoy. If you’ve had a great time at the annual fête last time round, you’re more likely to show your face there again this year. (Properly masked and distanced, of course.) Plus, having something of a picture of the things you’d generally find agreeable can give you some direction in making choices.
Speaking for myself, I know I can be prone to decision paralysis. If someone asks me what I have for pudding, there is a true risk of my getting stuck in a loop of fretting. What do I want? What do I want? Am I taking too long? What do I want? Simply knowing I like caramel sorts all of this out. I can solemnly say: “Caramel, please,” and all will be fine.
What we do and do not like can in some cases be so tightly entwined with our life’s goings-on, that we might feel them to be part of who we are. Our identity. It’s not just that I choose cycling over other means of transportation. I am a cyclist. And you don’t just adore cats, you are definitely a cat person. (Insert your favorite identity building preferences here.) Friendships and foe-hoods are formed over what one person likes and the other detests. Why, hello there, Comic Sans fan club!
Enter: the Like button
You might think that a bit over a decade ago, all of these likings — this finding agreeable, enjoyable or satisfactory — found its way into a grotesque fist-and-thumb-shaped, blue-whitish button on a still to be specified online platform. We’re talking obviously about Facebook, which has recently rebranded itself as ‘Meta’ because the Facebook brand had gotten too toxic.
Initially dubbed the ‘Awesome’ button, it was a neat copy of a feature already implemented by Facebook’s then-competitor FriendFeed, which Facebook then bought up. As they did with Instagram, WhatsApp and other rivals who threatened to make a dent in their stake in their social surveillance oligopoly.
The button, according to Facebook workers active in its development, was meant to declutter the comment section on a Facebook post. Comic book artist and former Product Manager at the company, Leah Pearlman, first announced a Like button in February 2009:
“Recently, I had a friend write a note about running her first marathon and another friend upload pictures of his new baby. In both cases, they ended up with over 30 comments, all saying, ‘Awesome!’ ‘Congrats!’ The aggregation of the sentiment ‘I like this’ makes room in the comments section for longer accolades.”
According to this official story, the Like button was supposedly introduced because the comment sections were getting too cluttered with natural language expressions. And instead of people writing messy text to one another, would it not be far better if they just had a single button which can either be clicked or not clicked — a nice binary — so that we can use this liking behavior to track … Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.
OK the like, again in Pearlman’s words, offers:
“… an easy way to tell friends that you like what they’re sharing on Facebook with one easy click. Wherever you can add a comment on your friends’ content, you’ll also have the option to click ‘Like’ to tell your friends exactly that: ‘I like this.’”
In other words, the like was meant to be a low-threshold, low-barrier route to sending a signal to other users on the platform — be they companies or those vague acquaintances you met on a night out, which Facebook generally likes to call ‘friends’ — and tell them that you are having this experience of finding agreeable, enjoyable or satisfactory towards them, or towards something posted by them.
Today, likes are well-integrated into the entire ecosystem of the ad driven internet and their take on various guises on Facebook, as well as on LinkedIn and Google’s YouTube, the buttons through which with a simple press, you can express your liking takes the shape of a solid or outlined fist performing a thumbs up gesture. And it is revealing about attempts at cultural sensitivity, that these organization chose a symbol that in certain countries — including parts of Greece, Iran, and Afghanistan — is basically the equivalent of saying ‘up yours’ to your interlocutor. Elsewhere, such as on TikTok, Twitter or Facebook-owned Instagram, you can instead indicate that you like something, or that it’s your favorite, by pressing an innocuous heart-shaped sign.
As an aggressive mould quickly spreading through the moist, inadequately ventilated corners of the Internet, like buttons and their associated question of liking have become pervasive in many people’s daily lives. So you’re fetching some spring rolls at the market store. Consider liking us? You’re quietly enjoying the cityscape. Please like this view! You’ve just had a surgery. Would you recommend this to a friend?
Are like clicks likings?
Opportunities to like or not like are everywhere. But here’s a question. All these own platform positivity buttons, all this button pressing? How should we really understand this? Is it really an electronic transformation or translation of that initial experience or feeling of liking someone? The digital guise of finding something agreeable, enjoyable or satisfactory.
But actually, once you think about it, how could it possibly be finding something enjoyable or satisfactory, as we said, is an experience or a feeling. It’s something that happens to you, and it’s quite passive. Pressing a button to signal a liking, however minimal the effort, is nonetheless still an action. It is something you do. More specifically, tapping that button — be it a heart, a twinkle or a thumbs-up — is an act of communication. Either to the person or organization whose material you are liking, or perhaps to your mates to indicate that this is the sort of thing that you can appreciate.
Liking on a platform, then, is decidedly not feeling. Liking instead is an act of communication. A form of social signaling. And not only does the like, by being moved online in this way, transform from an experience or a feeling into a gesture or an act of communication. No. In addition, on most platforms, like buttons have a publicly displayed number next to them, keeping track (supposedly) of the exact number of people who sat on sofas, in offices (or, more likely on the loo) gleaming with appreciation for the high quality material that you posted. In one sweep, with such PDL (public display of liking) the like has transformed yet further from a feeling, to a social signal, to a quantifiable, a countable, an object. “How many likes did you get?” “Oh my, the video got 1000s of likes in just hours!” On-platform likes are miles away from any feeling of enjoyment at the fine scent of freshly brewed jasmine tea. They are numbered. They are collectibles. Collectibles, which, precisely because of this publicly displayed tally, can easily be seen as indicating a person’s social status in a network.
Now, this might be a good place to ask: If likes are communicative signals, who are they really for? It might not always be top of your mind when you’re, once again, pushing your way through a sequence of hearts or thumbs-ups. But the main audience or beneficiary of your on-platform workshift might not actually be the person or organization whose text or video (or, more abstractly, ‘content’), you are liking. A primary, if not the main, beneficiary of your dutiful like-clicking is, in fact, the platform that you’re on. Be it Facebook, TikTok, Twitter or yet something else. You are providing that platform with binary data points about yourself. Binary, meaning that there are only two options: either the button gets pressed, or it doesn’t get pressed. Now that’s jolly convenient for a platform whose business model it is to profile you, its user, and to sell advertisers opportunity to show you so-called targeted advertising. Targeted to you, that is.
In a blog post from early 2019, Facebook’s founder, chairperson and Chief Executive Officer, Mark Zuckerberg, admits exactly this. They say:
“People consistently tell us that if they’re going to see ads, they want them to be relevant.”
Pardon the interruption. Relevant ads? People say they want to see material designed to sway them to purchase things they weren’t planning to get in the first place? Seriously, who are these people? I don’t think I have ever met them. Okay, back to the quote:
“People consistently tell us that if they’re going to see ads, they want them to be relevant. That means we need to understand their interests. So based on what pages people like, what they click on, and other signals, we create categories — for example, people who like pages about gardening and live in Spain — and then charge advertisers to show ads to that category.”
So your likes, among other clicks and button-presses are used to sell your already waning attention space to advertisers. And let us also not forget that Facebook’s (or Meta’s), like button itself, when it is integrated into a website — which is the case for many, many, many pages — is used by this company, by means of a cookie placement, to track your browsing behaviour across the entire web. Even when you’re not logged in. And even when you are not a Facebook user in the first place. So when we’re thinking about who we are communicating with when firmly coming down on that precious like button, or even when consulting a website that loads a like button, then it would be safe to conclude that the main party cheering is not our friend or family or mates. It is the platform that provides that very button.
Social status likes
People we want to belong. Generally, we appreciate being liked. Or if not liked, then at least respected, valued, heard. Or, failing that, we just quite prefer not to be totally ignored or cast out. Now once likes are publicly displayed (in some sick attempt at gamification, to get people to make as much of their waking life attention available to the platform), and once the number of likes you are getting is seen as some social status indicator, it should be no surprise that people start to chase likes. That people (we!) start behaving in a way that makes them (us!) perform well on this platform-fabricated metric; number of likes. We begin to notice what works and we most certainly notice what doesn’t work. We might even begin to craft life events — café visits, holidays, protest demos — just with an eye on being able to provide a record of them to the platform. Just so that a cautious but firm Like may be cast upon it by others. And of course, if what we post really doesn’t resonate with anyone, even after a couple of hours, we might just delete it again. The shame, the loneliness.
Along the way, in chasing likes, we gravitate ever closer to a formula for the type (or types) of pics, videos, polls, statements, jokes, tags and timings of what works on this particular platform. That, my friends, is why social media marketing is a profession.
Another word for this phenomenon, by the way, is ‘evaluative conditioning’. Conditioning is where a person or animal is trained to behave in a certain way, or to get used to a certain environment or circumstances. In evaluative conditioning, someone is trained to prefer (or avoid) a certain behaviour (or circumstance) by learning to associate that behaviour (or circumstance) with an affective (that is, positive or negative) stimulus. So for example, someone learns to seek out the behaviour of posting things on Twitter, by learning to associate that posting behaviour with the positive stimulus of getting one or more favorites in return.
Incidentally, evaluative conditioning is also called ‘Pavlovian conditioning’, after the Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. Pavlov trained a dog to salivate in response to the sound of a bell, because they had taught the dog to associate the stimulus of that bell sound with the positive circumstance of getting fed. Yes, I’m afraid that’s the slippery terrain we’re operating on with likes.
Research shows that people often feel that they have to compete for likes. People may tend to compare themselves to others on the platform, which in turn may make them feel inferior and more lonely. Or it might make a dent in their self-esteem or in their sense of belonging. In fact, some people see the number of likes they get as a measure of their self-worth. So, if they don’t get that many likes, they may feel rejected. Or they might even experience this as criticism from other people.
And I’ll just add here that with most feeds today, they do not deliver posts in chronological order, but use a secret sorting source — that is, an undisclosed algorithm. So if you’re not getting any likes, there is an equally good chance that nobody ever even saw your post, so they couldn’t have liked it to begin with.
Some of us end up in what has been called a vicious cycle of like-seeking. Where you want to get likes to feel less lonely. And at a certain point, you become dissatisfied with the likes that you actually got, which in turn can result in yet further like-seeking. Desires forever remaining unfulfilled.
Things get extra tough when we’re entering the terrifying domain of zero likes. Zero likes is as though you crack your best joke at a party and nobody utters a sound. No laughs. No coughs. No hiccups. Did they even hear you? Did you say something wrong? Do you even exist?
People tend to respond to such like desers in roughly one of two ways. Some people disengage. They decide: This clearly isn’t for me, no value to be gotten here. And then they leave the platform. But others, they double down. They massively up their time and energy spent on the platform, in the hope to post something that will maybe, next time, bring in more of that coveted commodity, the like. And I can think of exactly one party among all of those involved that would happily be counting on this latter sort of behaviour. Serve the user a side-dish of misery, and as a platform you’ll be rewarded by a banquet of, as they put it, ‘engagement’.
In response to all of this negativity associated with liking (and never had I contemplated that in 2021 I would be saying that sentence) various platforms, including Facebook-owned Instagram, have been experimenting with giving people the option to hide the number of likes their posts get, and to hide the number of likes on other people’s posts. In a similar vein, Google-owned YouTube has recently started to hide in a number of dislikes for videos.
Mia Garlick, Facebook’s Director of Policy for Australia and New Zealand, commented in 2019, when this feature of hiding likes was being trialed, that by adding this level of flexibility (meaning the option to hide like counts) Instagram hopes to give users the option to “lessen pressure” when posting to the platform. And:
“We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love.”
So they are basically admitting that, showing the number of likes on a post increases pressure and distracts people from, in their own words, sharing the things they love. In a way that exactly everyone could have seen coming as a result of publicly displaying like scores.
And the most salient feature about this like hiding business to me is exactly that: the likes will still be there. They will be hidden, but they still exist. The like button can still be pressed. The number of button presses will still be measured. Those like-press metrics will be still recorded and used by the platform to sell your attention to advertisers. All will be well in attention surveillance land. Except that you, as a user, may choose not to see, it by making like counts hidden.
I think by now the reality of liking has become so far removed from that original warm and fuzzy feeling of finding something agreeable, enjoyable or satisfactory, that is this time for a reset. For an individual just trying to go about their life, all of this tracking, attention selling, pressure and distraction that is channeled through such a simple heart or fist-shaped button has suddenly become eminently less likable. Now, I say: If, as an individual, you want to pursue true likings, you might be served by giving things a more philosophical twist, make it a little grander. You might be interested in a lifestyle orientation known as hedonism.
Hedonism is a very respectable position, but it’s easily misunderstood. Technically, hedonism is well described as a pursuit of pleasure. Hedonism is sometimes bluntly dismissed by its opponents and critics as nothing but the chasee of just any easy, low-effort, sensuous enjoyment, whatever the nature or whatever the source. So on that line, if I just bothered about easy enjoyment, I would be drinking hot tea with biscuits and a book all day. Now that, in my view, would be a quite poorly implemented hedonism. Because after a week or two, I’ll just start questioning my existence all over again — not too dissimilar from the short-term boost, followed by inevitable dissatisfaction, of an online like.
No, done properly, true hedonism gives a flourish to life. It can be sustainable, directed, all-encompassing, seeking of pleasure. Not because it allows some platform to monetize a couple more eyeballs, but because it actually makes you, as an individual, feel good.
Is there a right way to do hedonism? Well, here I’ll leave you with a description of ‘True Hedonism’ printed in an 1885 edition of the London-based Time: A Monthly Magazine, lifted from a review of the philosophical novel Marius the Epicurean, by philosopher Walter Pater. Now an Epicurean is anyone inspired by the thought of the Mediterranean materialist philosopher called ‘Epicurus’ who lived in the fourth to third century before the Common Era.
In this review, the writer, a certain William Sharp, says:
“… true hedonism is neither more nor less than cultured receptivity, openness to all thrilling and pleasant associations, avoidance of all that is mean and painful. This Hedonism (…) does not prevent or seek to prevent due attention to and performance of the ordinary daily duties of life; but it would teach us, where possible, to throw around these some glamour of beauty or significance, or at any rate not let them interfere with our serenity more than we can avoid.”
If we are really, truly bothered about what we like, then we can do better than duly executing yet another ultimately self-sabotaging button-press within a frankly demeaning user interface. Come on, you know it’s true. Instead, as true hedonists, we’d be far better off by surrounding ourselves with things and interactions that are pleasant to us. By sprinkling some actual, proper charm throughout our daily lives. And I don’t mean this in a wishy washy sort of way. Seriously, what is the low-hanging fruit of what you can do that would make things more pleasurable for you? Can you think of a tiny step that could make the drudgery of bed, shower, desk, dinner, sleep just that bit more enchanting? I will start by putting the kettle on.
Thank you for tuning into The Essay this week. For more essays, talks and vulnerability research, stick around for fresh episodes from Vulnerable By Design, our parent program. You can also sign up to our email newsletter, The Vulnerability Letter. Head to vulnerablebydesign.net for more information. I am Chris Onrust. Thanks for listening and bye for now.
The below are mostly technical research papers on the effects of giving and receiving likes, as discussed in the sections on ‘Evaluative conditioning’ and ‘Zero likes’. In case you’re interested in reading more about this.
- Rebecca A. Hayes, Eric D. Wesselmann, and Caleb T. Carr. ‘When Nobody “Likes” You: Perceived Ostracism Through Paralinguistic Digital Affordances Within Social Media’, 2018.
- Hae Yeon Lee, Jeremy P. Jamieson, Harry T. Reis, Christopher G. Beevers, Robert A. Josephs, Michael C. Mullarkey, Joseph M. O’Brien, and David S. Yeager. ‘Getting Fewer “Likes” Than Others on Social Media Elicits Emotional Distress Among Victimized Adolescents’, 2020.
- Christian Montag, Bernd Lachmann, Marc Herrlich, and Katharina Zweig. ‘Addictive Features of Social Media/Messenger Platforms and Freemium Games against the Background of Psychological and Economic Theories’, 2019.
- Ivanka Prichard, Shana O’Toole, Yu Wu, Jane Harford, and Marika Tiggemann. ‘No Likes, No Problem? Users’ Reactions to the Removal of Instagram Number of Likes on Other People’s Posts and Links to Body Image’, 2021.
- Sabine Reich, Frank M. Schneider, and Leonie Heling. ‘Zero Likes – Symbolic Interactions and Need Satisfaction Online’, 2018.
- Elaine Wallace, and Isabel Buil. ‘Hiding Instagram Likes: Effects on Negative Affect and Loneliness’, 2021.