A Phenomenology of the “Like” button

While the flur­ry of activ­i­ty of a few months back seems to have mel­lowed, most Face­book users are prob­a­bly famil­iar with the tremen­dous out­cry — in the form of at least two dif­fer­ent groups, along with innu­mer­able com­ments along the way — for the insti­tu­ion if a “Dis­like” but­ton to match the “Like” but­ton cur­rent­ly avail­able below sta­tus updates, wall posts, pho­tos, and pret­ty much any­thing else that is vis­i­ble.

Admit­ted­ly, tak­en in iso­la­tion, it makes per­fect sense that there should be a flip side to that “Like” but­ton. We want to give some things a thumbs up, oth­ers a thumbs down. When some­one has a par­tic­ual­ry fun­ny bon mot, we want to log our approval; when they announce the birth of their new lit­ter of ham­sters, we want to quick­ly reg­is­ter that we share their joy. But when the news is bad, or when the poster’s wit is employed in com­plaint or out­cry, we are struck by the incon­gruity: can we “like” the post with­out seem­ing to “like” the neg­a­tive news or sit­u­a­tion? Alas, I think there is a fun­da­men­tal mis­ap­pre­hen­sion of what the “Like” but­ton actu­al­ly does on Face­book.

I know there are a lot of gran­u­lar set­tings on Face­book, so this expe­ri­ence may not be uni­ver­sal, but if you’re like me, you get a lot of email noti­fi­ca­tions, not only of com­ments on your own items, but also sub­se­quent com­ments on oth­er users’ posts upon which you have com­ment­ed. These noti­fi­ca­tions, of course, also show up more-or-less imme­di­ate­ly with­in Face­book itself, for those of us who are logged in and star­ing at the screen more-or-less con­stant­ly. (What? I’m lone­ly up here, okay? Sheesh…)

But have you noticed that if you click on the “Like” but­ton for some­thing, you also get these fol­low-up noti­fi­ca­tions? That is what is real­ly does. A more pre­cise nam­ing would make it the “This is a con­ver­sa­tion I would like to con­tin­ue to feel a part of, and even though I don’t have any­thing sub­stan­tive to add to it at this time, I would like to be remind­ed of its ongo­ing devel­op­ment” but­ton. (You can see why they had to trim that down, can’t you?) See, it’s a place­hold­er; they might have actu­al­ly called it the “Fol­low” but­ton and avoid­ed all this hul­la­baloo, although I hon­est­ly think “Fol­low” is prob­a­bly a bit too for­mal sound­ing for this par­tic­u­lar instance. (Whether my ear­li­er use of “sub­stan­tive” is over the top in ref­er­ence to any aspect of the Face­book expe­ri­ence is a point that, how­ev­er worth debat­ing, falls out­side the scope of our present endeav­or.)

So, while not imme­di­ate­ly intu­itive, I believe the present sys­tem is both ade­quate­ly con­ceived and suf­fi­ceint­ly flex­i­ble to serve the needs for which it is intend­ed. Try not to think of the dichoto­my between “Like” and “Dis­like” here. Rather, the choice is between “Com­ment” (say some­thing now) and “Like” (fol­low along, and maybe say some­thing lat­er).

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