Everyone is still trying to sort out the implications of Facebook Inc.’s news feed reboot announced last week. One thing I’m wondering about: Why hasn’t Facebook taken the hatchet to the “like" button?
Mark Zuckerberg says he wants more “meaningful social interactions" on Facebook. He doesn’t want people to spend so much time scrolling around aimlessly on Facebook or otherwise passively wallowing in the social network. It turns out that behaviour makes people unhappy, or at least that’s what Facebook’s own researchers have said.
Well, it seems the “like" button—and related reactions like the crying face or heart—are part of the problem. Clicking “like" is the opposite of meaningful or social. It’s a superficial way to interact with people. And that’s exactly the type of activity Facebook is trying to weed out.
It’s clear from what executives have said that “likes" will be less important as a signal for determining what each of us see in the news feed. But that “like" button is still there. People click on it billions of times a day. On Wednesday, I clicked “like" on a Facebook friend’s engagement photo. But that wasn’t meaningful. It was the internet equivalent of a half-hearted wave hello.
It wasn’t always this way. The “like" button was introduced 10 years ago by FriendFeed, which some of us remember as a website that helped people find interesting things from across the internet. Facebook was apparently working on its own version at the same time, according to this short history from Facebook veteran Andrew Bosworth.
The feature was delayed in part because Zuckerberg was skeptical of it, according to Bosworth. But the “like" button was introduced in 2009, Facebook acquired FriendFeed later that year and we know the rest. The “like" button became a defining feature of Facebook—a huge version of it greets you as you drive into company headquarters—and an organizing principle for the whole internet. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, YouTube and Netflix all have some version of the like button to help quantify what’s popular and determine what is worth showing to millions more people.
The beauty of the button is it’s an easy way to show someone you’re paying attention, and to see what people around us think is worth seeing. “Liking is pretty easy; that’s the whole point of liking," Facebook executive Adam Mosseri said in recent Wired interview. Yes, it’s easy, but it’s too often a replacement for more meaningful interaction that Zuckerberg is trying to encourage.
I’m not saying killing the “like" button would solve all the company’s problems. There are no silver bullets for Facebook’s ills. But it’s clear that some of the defining features of social media and the internet had unintended consequences, and they’re becoming too glaring to ignore. One of the defining characteristics of YouTube has been that anyone can upload a video, and maybe make a living from their favourite hobby. YouTube is rethinking that now.
We can see in 2018 that the people who helped shape what the internet is today are starting to rethink some of its foundations. And the “like" is one of the fragile stones on which the internet was built. Bloomberg Gadfly