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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