The Like as interest and social gesture

I have been meaning to write about Likes and users interests for quite some time. But the matter is complicated. So rather than wait to write the perfect post, I’m going to lay down some cornerstones, sketch a few concepts and maybe develop some key arguments.

I’ll begin with a bit of the raison d’etre. Likes are not just the core social gesture on Facebook. They are a one-click sign of interest used on many kinds of social services. Likes are like social bookmarks — a simple expression of interest in a bit of social data. That is, a selection of one thing among many things, an expression simplified in order to communicate to an audience.

Let’s break this down somewhat. For the Like isn’t a clear and direct expression of the user’s interest, or like. The reasons for this are several-fold. (I have written on this in the past, but a brief summary can’t hurt.)

One gesture is not capable of capturing differences in degree. Clearly, when we like something, our like varies by degree

A one-word gesture is not a linguistic statement. This limits the expression of interest. There will be ambiguity in the selection itself, owing to:

  • The reason for liking is not provided;
  • The kind of like is not provided;
  • The purpose of sharing the like is not stated;
  • The audience intended in sharing the like has some ambiguity (due to the medium);
  • Any interest in soliciting conversation or commentary is ambivalent.

For example, liking a song is not the same as liking the band that performs the song. Liking a band is not the same as liking a genre, a time period, or a category of music. Liking a song online in order to save it for later, to share it with friends, to add it to one’s history, folders, or other collections, or even to solicit the interest of others — these are all differences.

We should be able to agree that the Like, as an online gesture of interest, reduces differences to a single degree. And there are yet more problems with the Like.

Liking online is a social act. Even when it’s an individual act of social bookmarking, it’s a act committed in front of an audience. Whether that audience pays attention doesn’t matter. Fact is, there are many individual Likes that are committed with the knowledge that others may see them.

If social action is intrinsic to the gesture of Liking, then we can agree that it is impossible to determine what’s intended by liking. The individual interest is compromised by the social action of sharing that interest.

This gets interesting if we think about the importance of social gestures to capturing and creating value in online social media. We have opted for the simplicity of user experience over the clarity of more differentiated symbolic system. That’s fine. But we need to now be aware of the consequences.

We have noted that the Like introduces ambiguities of intent, of degree, of relation (type), and of communication. The Like also introduce ambiguities into the quantity and quality of value created.

Consider that for many social systems, business models rest on capturing a user’s evaluation and selection of an object, or bit of content, such that user participation adds value to that content. That’s more or less the gist of most commercial social media. (It’s not the key value proposition of communication tools — their interest is in building habits of use, such that their activity can be paired to content experiences elsewhere or later.)

The value added, then, matters. Content is objective, has objective attributes that we can store and by means of which we can organize content (a store; taxonomies and categories, for search and findability). Social engagement with that content adds social evaluations.

These subjective selections and choices create taste. Taste is captured in trends — and can correspond to social groups and identities. Furthermore, popular tastes can be used to drive exposure to content. For better or worse, popularity alone is a reliable means of organizing and navigating content (and people).

I have seen — as have you — a number of systems built around interest pivoting. These use the interests captured from user participation to create navigation to users (e.g. members of a dating site); and to create contexts of interest for the purpose of advertising.

The notion of using interests (same as Likes) for social navigation would seem to make perfect sense. But there is the matter of: for what? If an interest captured says something about my taste, the next question must be: in what contexts do I wish my social interactions to be an extension of my interests or tastes?

In dating, for example, I may (not) want to find somebody like me. I may (not) want to find somebody who likes what I like. I may (not) want to find somebody who likes exactly this (book, song, band, movie, actor, tv show…). Where interests are used as pivots and views of a system’s membership, differences of degree and type matter quite a bit.

The dating site is but one example. I suspect that many companies in the social space are betting on the value add of user interests captured within a social context. The promises of reviews, recommendations, social and realtime filtering, social search, and more invest heavily in the assumption that social commerce trumps conventional commerce. Social commerce extracts the distinctions of tastes; non-social commerce relies on uitility, functionality, price, and other “objective” measure of value.

What’s more, any decent brand knows that it has no choice but to go social. For it’s in social commerce that branding communicates (socially); becomes socially relevant, and accrues the narrative and imagistic benefits of socialized taste-making.

I can return us now briefly to the gesture of the Like. We now have a more differentiated understanding of what the Like represents and means. We can see that it is a unique type of sign that signifies value and interest in ways mission critical to social media. We know, too, that the Like alone does not capture, convey, or communicate all of its distinctions.

We can see that some of these may be supplied by means of interactions and practices — in short contexts in which gestures of interest are captured or presented, used to organize results, to filter among content sources, or used to frame views of people and content.

We can see, in other words, that the gesture and expression alone are inadequate to either capture or represent a user’s interests. And we can see what we will need to explore next: the ways in which social interactions and practices may clarify the value of the value added.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

5 comments on this article

  1. I wonder what better terms could be used as opposed to the simplistic like? Plus, the ability to dislike something was hoped as a negative rating as opposed to the removal of like – that tweak could give some much needed added value.

  2. Pingback: The Evolution of Likes as Social Gestures | Lifestream Blog

  3. Pete Love on

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you describe ‘Likes’ as being like social bookmarks. Such a simplistic statement as ‘like’ tells us very little… it can be mean so many things, including simply a desire of the user to associate themselves with the content in front of, like you say, an audience.

  4. I my opinion, the funny thing of this all is — it doesn’t matter. At least for users. True, as a designer you will have to understand the motivation of users to express them in this way. Only if you get a grip on the dozens of reasons people may express a like, you can apply the mechanism in an effective way.

    But I strongly believe that the like has become so popular /because/ it can mean many things, and you can remain ambiguous about it. And that it would be a mistake to make it more…sophisticated. For instance, I may express a like on an individual post of someone I vaguely know not because I like that post, but because I want to express appreciation towards that person. I want that to remain implicit.

    These nuanced messages are often best left in the heads of sender and receiver, and not have a somewhat cognitive interface for something so emotional and intuitive.

    Maybe likes are the body language of social.


  5. Pieter,

    I completely agree — ambiguity is a currency of sorts here. I don’t think I’d see formalization of the gesture in ways that make it more precise unless accompanied by some kind of context. In fact, context may be a way to supplement the gesture with additional meta.

    From a user perspective, ambiguity is more or less fine — we’re much better suited to working out what it means than any system.

    But for those in the business of capturing meta data from Likes, such as to use in advertising etc, it’s more tricky. It was to the imprecision of the Like for those folks that I had the design breakdown in mind.