How I Learned To Stop Worrying, and Love The Like Button

We’ve gathered here today to dissect one of nature’s most resilient new organisms: the Like Button on Facebook. The Like Button is, apparently, here to stay, regardless of how comfortable you are with its continued survival. Even though it presides over much of our daily lives, we don’t, as citizens of a democracy, get to vote on it or anything, just like I don’t remember ever casting a ballot with ‘Extreme, Devastating Weather Patterns’ or ‘Craig Ferguson’ checked off.

Given that it seems (temporarily) permanent and that we interact with it visually and emotionally on a daily basis, I have decided to conduct a long-overdue, informal survey of the Like Button in my own mind.

Conclusion:  Yeah. I love it.

Let me be forthright for a second. My profession (read: none) demands that I spend a lot of time actively contributing to the virtual society that is Facebook. It’s a society, similar to the Internet as a whole, that is unquestionably still under construction, but one where the bricks continue to be laid before our collective eyes. Which is perhaps what remains so surprising about the Like Button specifically; for a website so Protean and thus vexing throughout its evolution, Facebook doesn’t shape-shift when it comes to the Like Button. After three years of existence, it’s officially just a signature feature of the service offering.

So let’s hunker down and unpack everything we can about it!  First, a brief review.

  • The Like Button first appeared in February 2009, which, in Facebook years, can only be described as a ‘life ago’ (some perspective:  Facebook had 800 million fewer users at that point and Jesse Eisenberg was starring in Adventureland)
  • Was originally going to be an ‘Awesome’ button, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg vetoed that before release
  • Facebook once estimated the ‘Like’ global metrics at 31,250 clicks per any given second

[Here are Some Other Statistics I May Find Very Interesting If They’re True 

– On an AVERAGE day:

  • 26% of users Like something (that seems right)
  • 22% of users Comment on something (surprisingly neck-and-neck)
  • 15% of users update their own status (really? … I don’t believe it’s that high…)
  • 10% of users send a private Facebook message (that is ridiculous, c’mon)

– Women average 21 updates to their Facebook status per month, men average just 6

– The average user contributes 4 likes/comments for every 1 update of their own status (which makes sense; it’s harder to start a conversation than it is to chime in)

– On average, Facebook users get 7 new Facebook friends per month, initiating 3 requests and accepting 4 … 80% of friend requests are accepted

It is perverse how fascinating I find the above.]

First of all, we are not going to talk about the Like Button as a business or marketing tool and its percolations across all of the Internet or how the icon itself, the blue-sleeved Thumbs Up, is undeniably one of the 10 most recognizable images on the planet, up there with Santa Claus and Nike’s Swoosh.

For today, we will focus on the micro and discuss why it’s valuable on an individual level. I’m talking shared photos, videos, and links. I’m talking status updates.


1. It is simple, accessible, and your only choice 

I mean, it’s a Thumbs-Up. Nothing is lost in translation. As you read this, some Swedish guy traveling through Japan just rented a car using only Thumbs-Up language. For a company like Facebook, which has always succeeded because it is clean, visually-pleasing, and ostensibly safe, there is no better symbol.

And seriously, be glad it’s not something else entirely. Apparently, the Like Button took about two years for Facebook to develop and much of the 2007-2008 discussions included making it a simple +/-  icon, which would have been completely sterile, or a series of stars for users to rate, as in ‘Justin Tyrrell gives this status 3 stars out of 5,’ as in ‘Justin Tyrrell is a weird, pretentious loser.’

It also almost became the ‘Awesome’ button, as reviewed earlier, which would have probably set humanity back a decade or two. I imagine I’d click ‘Awesome’ and it would show my name next to a ‘high-five’ widget. And to be perfectly candid, outside of porn, high-fives have no right showing up on the Internet.

In an age of snark, a time when emoticons are used sparingly and teasingly, a time when many of us knowingly use ‘LOL’ despite its inherent flamboyance … it is pretty awesome haha lol that the thumbs-up just means what it means without having to mean anything about your choice(s) to use it.

2.  It is delightfully impersonal

It’s been probably said that technology creates laziness. To wit: clicking Like on your friend’s post is (literally) the least you could do today to let them know you care.

If actually making a Comment on someone’s post is the equivalent of talking to them at a big party, the Like Button is the sufficient head-nod from across the room. It’s the escape clause for the anti-social person in all of us; it offers respect and acknowledgement, thus maintaining vital human connection(s), but does so via very little effort. When you strictly Like something, you get to pop into a party and say ‘Hello’ without further entanglement or commitment. It’s the dream, in other words.

[Tangent: Whereas clicking Like lets you approve of a situation from a breathable distance, Commenting puts you in a ‘notification’ cage. For example, if I Like someone’s status that says “I just got engaged y’all!,” Facebook doesn’t alert me every 20 minutes because someone else clicked Like and had the same obvious reaction that I did. But if I chose to also post a ‘Congrats you two!’ comment, I will be bombarded by Comment notifications over the next 24 hours. It will be suffocating.]

Not only does just Liking a post keeps the conversation on your own terms, i.e. brief, but it somehow still makes you look good to that person (the Likee) for even acknowledging them at all. It’s genius, frankly. The Likee is humbled that you took time out from your busy, modern day to validate their existence, but it was really just one click you made while glumly scrolling. Which brings us to….

3. It allows for a range of interpretations

Clicking Like can convey agreement in a variety of forms. A Like can express the following:

(A) Polite, dismissive: e.g. “That’s neat.”

(B) Sincere, encouraging:  e.g.  “I’m glad, that’s great”

(C) Exuberant:  e.g.  “YES! I LOVE IT!”

That’s the general spectrum, but applicable to just about anything you may see. If somebody posts pictures from their recent vacation, my Like can mean:

(A)  “I like beaches, too … wish I could go on vacation  🙁  ”

(B)  “Woh! What is that mountain in the background? Great photo!”


Or, if somebody posts something intended as funny, my Like can mean:

(A)  Pity laugh. If this was texting, it’d be ‘Haha,’ meaning ‘cute joke!’

(B)  Real laugh. The kind that actually made a noise. Call it an ‘lol’ if you must.

(C)  Hysterics.  I’m not gonna lie, I’m not sure (C) even exists- it’s Facebook, after all.

So why is this versatility so important on Facebook?  Because the receiver of the Like will never know the difference, you fool! And thanks to our ol’ grizzled, collective friend Insecurity, the receiver will always assume the best, or (C)!

For any non-human out there, I’ll explain: maintaining high self-esteem is a daily priority for most of us because society (virtual or otherwise) can be crowded and cruel, so when we do get that Like on something we posted ourselves, our brain tends to process that Like as an expression of love. After all, we want to, if possible, be happy, so it is psychologically useful to take an ambiguous gesture of agreement and extrapolate it to an exponential degree. I know that when I Like something, I generally just kind of like it, but when someone Likes what I posted, I think to myself, “oh man, they really liked it, they only clicked Like because ‘Fuckin Love’ wasn’t available.”

[Tangent: This positive interpretation bias rears its unsavory head in all modern communication. Texting, e-mail, social media–that Axis of Millenial Evil–continues to grow in popularity because it’s much safer for all of our egos to communicate that way. Since I can’t see the other person’s body language or over-analyze their tone of voice, I get to assume everything I just typed was greeted with warmth, laughter, and affection. This culture of constant, surface-level validation is why people born post-1990 are going to be such fascinating adults. I feel like it’s 50/50 that 100/0 of them turn out to be major head-cases.]

I’d totally…Like…her…button. Sorry.

4.  It’s addictive

With Liking, once you get over the initial embarrassment of using it, you slowly develop a dependency on its function. You need to interject your approval every chance you get. I am positive I am not the only person who, in the past year or so, has gotten so used to hitting ‘Like’ to express instantaneous support on Facebook, found themselves laughing at something written in an e-mail, only to be disappointed that there was no ‘Like’ option underneath each paragraph. I felt short-handed, like a key social weapon was missing from my typical artillery.

How did the Like Button become so natural, so…part of our body? Well, whether you realized it or not at the time, in July 2010, 17 months after introducing the Like Button as a tool, users could now Like, or Thumbs-Up, a Comment on Facebook. It did not have to be someone’s post. It could just be a Comment. This was nothing short of brilliant. Not only did it feed the beast for people already hooked on Like, but it gave reactionary smart-asses the chance to finally be Liked on something. You see, even though they never post things themselves, they may now have a Comment here or there get Liked, which, by rules of Pay It Forward, mean they need to start Liking other people’s Comments and Statuses and voila… Facebook had a whole new generation of addicts.

There are certainly those out there that just never tried the drug and rarely Like anything, the ‘too cool for school’ crowd– a choice that I honestly sympathize with, but at the same time, I don’t know who they think they are. I am all for introversion, but a constant absence of altruism indirectly fosters an environment of negativity and division; as Costanza would exalt, “you know we’re living…in a SOCIETY!”

On the other pole, because every addictive substance has its abusers, is the Liker-Of-Everything persona in your Facebook universe. They pass out these Likes as if they have business cards they need to get rid of. Putting their name all over your Feed with ‘Justin Tyrrell likes this’ and ‘Justin Tyrrell likes this,’ which always ends up looking narcissistic and desperate. A Cal St. professor, Larry Rosen, has actually done research on this condition that is far more academic and clinical than my own findings. His conclusion is that people whom more frequently Like on Facebook tend to also exhibit symptoms of mania and compulsivity in their real life.
That aforementioned (A) thru (C) range of interpretation… it doesn’t apply to these people. It does not belong to their crackhead reality. They just Like everything, with no balance and no discretion, and consequently, no credibility. Which is really sad, because they might genuinely like your status update of ‘Best. Happy Hour. Ever.’, but you will never know, because clicking Like is not a special occasion for them, it’s just robotic.

[Full disclosure:  My biggest fear in life right now is that I’m becoming an Over-Liker. I don’t know where my standards went, but now that I’m comfortable with the machinery itself, I’ve losing sight of what I actually like and what I just want to be seen Liking.  These are actual excerpts from my internal monologue:

  • Look at that dog’s wittle face…Goddamn that IS cute. Like!
  • Whaddya got there, is that a baby, dressed in a tuxedo onesie? You only live YOLO once, I guess! Like!
  • Checking in at a Gotye concert? I’m a little skeptical of him, long-term, but hey, I support live music and I support drinking, which you’re probably doing… Like!
  • A status updates that mentions moustaches AND the Mayan apocalypse? I mean, I definitely didn’t laugh out loud, but you’re trying, and maybe you’re actually being ironic because you KNOW how cliché those references are…. Like!

What’s happening to me?  It’s like I’m drunk all the time. I’m just patting everyone on the back, singing ‘Let the good times roll!’ in the street to no one in particular. If you needed any more proof that I ‘have a problem,’ please realize that this 2500-carefully-chosen-word ESSAY is something I’ve written just to rationalize to myself what’s so goddamned phenomenal about the Like button. This isn’t a blog post, it’s a cry for help. TAKE THE NEEDLE OUT OF MY HAND.]

5. It forces optimism

This is certainly the most obvious selling point, but it’s the core basis for my support nonetheless. The Like button is an actualization of the ‘if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ maxim, and as much as I hate to give traditional decorum credit, abiding by that rule has possibly, if only slightly, made me a happier person.

Should you wish to criticize someone’s post, you have to embrace that Debbie Downer role head-on and actually Comment, which means you have to essentially start a disagreement or a full-fledged argument, which is simply not socially desirable. Even though the rest of the Internet welcomes negative feedback, including when reviewing businesses (Yelp), products (Amazon), or media (YouTube), Facebook continues to prosper because it is so nurturing, because it respects the gray areas; there are not two cold absolutes like ‘Funny Or Die’ or ‘Hot Or Not.’

And for that idiot inside your brain that once said, “I wish there was a Dislike button”: No you don’t. You don’t know what you want, clearly, because if you think letting people spread their negative wings across Facebook’s pristine sky is a constructive idea, you’re just not a person that believes in world peace, what can I say? Zuckerberg has again and again vowed there never would be, and that’s because he’s a genius that didn’t need Harvard, and conversely, you’re definitely not.

Facebook, with the Like Button as its muscle, enforces a language of celebration.

[Tangent:  Speaking demographically, this language of celebration, this exclamatory ‘Spring BREAK!!!!!’ enthusiasm, traditionally befits a younger, and more feminine, population.

Data from Pew Research supports this! Yay! More metrics! Your gender and age affect your Facebook activity!

These results above are hardly surprising, but we still needed confirmation on a few of the subsequent take-aways:

  • Your father probably doesn’t post a lot.
  • The outliers for Liking several things a day are females (20%) and 18-22 year-olds across both genders (31%)
  • The outliers for never Liking things is males (28%) and M/F over the age of 65 (36%)
  • The older you are, the less you Like things. Except for those that reach retirement age, when positivity generally trends back upward, presumably because they have fewer commitments and can ‘finally relax’ and stop trying-to-control-every-little-thing-in-life, blah, blah, etc., etc.]

For me, though, the questions remain: am I a more positive person in real life because of the Like Button? If not, is it just a matter of time before I am? Will the inevitable, continued overlap of my ‘real life’ with my ‘Internet life’ be too much to even make a discrimination between the two?

If I had been so lucky as to take part in a longitudinal study this past half-decade, one that had my brain plugged in sporadically to check out how my dopamine receptors operate both within the conditions of Facebook and without, we may have some answers. But alas, that blessed opportunity never came my way.

On a conscious level, I do seem to be experiencing split-second rushes of joy and generosity when I Like a friend’s post on Facebook. However, on the flip side, as we all know, much of the Facebook experience is spent in long periods of intense disgust. So when you think about it, it may as well be ‘real’ life. There may be a few times a day, when not on the Internet, I express my fervent preference for something (usually it’s an aged cheese), but those moments barely undercut the fits of contempt I often feel for everything and everyone I see. Honestly, reconciling those extremes in life–love and hate, happiness and misery, good and evil–is hard, honest work.

Fortunately, when I log in to Facebook, that weight is off my shoulders. In there, the Haters gonna hate, but only through muffled screams while drowning in an ocean of Like.