Mia Levitin on a simple innovation that has complicated our relationship with the internet
Social networks seduce with a set of siren songs, wooing us with the possibility of connection, self-display, voyeurism, distraction. But it’s the approbation of the crowd, communicated mainly through “likes” – as addictive to the executive on Twitter as the teenager on TikTok – that has made the platforms the behemoths they are today.
It’s hard to remember Facebook before the iconic blue thumbs-up that first indicated “like”, but in its early inception users could only comment on posts. Developed in 2007, but not launched until 2009, the like button afforded a low-effort way to acknowledge a post with a single click – much faster than typing out a reaction. The effect on engagement was immediate, recalled Leah Pearlman, an early employee credited with the idea. “The stats went up so fast. Fifty comments became 150 likes.” Users then posted more content in pursuit of what Justin Rosenstein, another member of the team who created the feature, has called “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”.
In addition to upping engagement, likes allowed Facebook’s algorithm to determine which posts to prioritise and drove the company’s advertising model, which accounted for 98 per cent of its revenue in 2020. What is mined from users in exchange, of course, is preferences that can be sold on to advertisers. Michal Kosinski, a psychometric expert, has shown that with only ten likes, he knows more about you than a colleague; with 70 likes, he knows you better than your friends; 150 allows him to outdo your parents; and after 300 likes, he’d trump your partner.
Other social networks saw the potential of tapping into our deep-seated need for social acceptance and followed suit: YouTube moved from star ratings to thumbs-up/thumbs-down in 2010; Twitter had preceded Facebook with a “favourites” star that acted more like a bookmark, but switched to a heart-shaped like in 2015. Instagram’s rapid growth from its launch in 2010 was thanks to the compulsive combo of likes with selfies. “[The] ‘like’ feature was the heart of Instagram even more than of Facebook,” writes Tim Wu in The Attention Merchants. “Every photograph is, in a sense, rated by peers, thus providing a kind of instantaneous feedback.”
It has taken the rise of another feature – video Stories – for Instagram, owned by Facebook since 2012, to experiment with hiding likes from followers in a few countries (a wellbeing initiative announced at Facebook’s F8 conference). Users can still see their own likes, however: “Do away with likes for posters and the engine dies,” Adam Alter, professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, told Wired. No feedback, no incentive to post.
The future may see a more private-seeming liking, as Mark Zuckerberg suggested in 2019: a hybrid between group chats and social media. But liking is so fundamental to the business model that it won’t disappear, and much of the damage has been done: social media platforms paved the way to a Donald Trump presidency, ushered in a post-truth era, and continue to stoke outrage without much action.
We have given the keys of the kingdom to corporations with the ammunition to affect emotion, cognition, politics and culture – all in exchange for Facebook quizzes telling us which Disney princess we most resemble.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill