The uncomfortable reality behind Facebook’s world-changing ‘Like’ button

Facebook’s ‘like’ sign is seen on the campus of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

For years, Facebook’s “thumbs up” icon adorned the sign that greeted visitors at the company’s California headquarters.

It was, of course, an image of the Like button, which was launched in 2009. Ultimately, it was replaced by Meta’s blue pretzel logo at Mark Zuckerberg’s headquarters in 2021. By then, however, it was already clear that the ubiquitous, blue-cuffed fist has already become one of the most important pieces of computer code ever released, shifting the goalposts in the way the world consumes information, markets products, and communicates.

Today, twenty years after Facebook launched on February 4, 2004, there are countless likes every day, including everything from personal photos to news stories and viral posts (special viral messages).

The Like – and its ability to turn media into a popularity contest – has powered most of the social media giants that launched in its wake and helped whole segments of the economy, such as influencer marketing. But it is also at the center of the rows over privacy and is blamed in part for the rise of highly polarized and distorted online content, ‘fake news’ and filter bubbles.

On his anniversary, Yahoo News takes a look at the Like that Zuckerberg built.

Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the Meta Connect event at Meta headquarters in Menlo Park, California on September 27, 2023. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the Meta Connect event at Meta headquarters in Menlo Park, California on September 27, 2023. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the Meta Connect event at Meta Headquarters in Menlo Park in 2023. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Why ‘Like’ almost didn’t happen

Facebook wasn’t the first site to use a button that allowed users to give approval. For example, the social news site Digg had a way to ‘Digg’ or ‘Bury’ news stories, but Facebook’s Like overshadowed this because of its versatility and scale – you could like anything from a friend’s photo to a local business.

At Facebook, the iconic button almost didn’t make it into the real world, with company employees thinking it was a “cursed project” due to rejections from Mark Zuckerberg.

Writing on the question-and-answer site Quora, Facebook engineer Andrew “Boz” Bosworth described a 2007 meeting in which Zuckerberg turned down the position. He wrote: “Ready to launch and everything seems all set, but the latest review with Zuck is surprisingly not going well. Concerns about whether the interaction is public or private, cannibalizing the sharing feature.”

Bosworth also recalled how the project, initially codenamed ‘Props’, debated using a plus sign or stars before settling on the thumbs up in 2007 after finally receiving internal approval.

The button was first known as the Awesome button and was tested in people’s NewsFeed, initially with a system for both positive and negative feedback.

Before it was adopted, the team had to prove that using a Like button did not reduce the number of comments, the currency of popularity on Facebook at the time. Tests showed that the team actually had a Like button increased comments.

In a blog post at the launch, Facebook said: “We’ve just introduced an easy way to let friends know you like what they’re sharing on Facebook with one simple click. Where you can also add a comment to your friends’ content , you also have the option to click ‘Like’ to tell your friends just that: ‘I like this.’

How Like changed the world

The Like button quickly grew into a central part of Facebook, dictating (among other things) which stories a News Feed visitor would see.

As Facebook put it, “If you like something, we’ll let you know to show you other content we think you’d also like.”

That ‘Like’ sparked a massive change in the media landscape, with posters incentivized to chase Likes (other, more complex ‘reactions’ such as a sad face and a love button were added many years later).

The more likes a post got, the more it would be seen by other people, so users and media outlets quickly learned to adjust their output to reap more and more of it.

Ezra Callahan, one of the first dozen employees at Facebook, told Fast Company that some at the company worried that the Like button was too easy and that it would “eliminate thoughtful engagement because people were lazy and would take the lazy route.” . out”.

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But the momentum was unstoppable. Likes have enabled a new ranking algorithm for news feeds; helped stimulate advertising; and allowed Facebook to collect data about users’ habits. Every subsequent rival, from Twitter to TikTok, has since relied on Likes or a similar mechanism to power the algorithm that feeds people content.

And it’s unlikely that too much will change in the near future, as three of the most popular sites used by young people to consume content – ​​Instagram, TikTok and YouTube – are all powered in part by technologies similar to the ‘ Facebook’s ‘Like’ button.

The dark side of Likes

Facebook’s Like button has created an information economy in which users become addicted to refreshing their screens – just as gamblers become addicted to slot machines.

The Like button informs what users see on screen and also rewards them for posting content that strikes a chord with others.

Professor Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan suggested that apps like Facebook aim to be “as addictive as possible” and affect the same areas of the brain as cocaine – and that helps explain one of the main reasons why Facebook has become so entrenched in our lives: we can do it don’t put it down.

Behavioral psychologist Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, told the Guardian in 2018 that such products are designed to be addictive.

Eyal said: “It starts with a trigger, an action, a reward and then an investment, and through successive cycles, through these hooks, habits are formed. We see them in all kinds of products, especially in social media and gambling. This is a big part of how habits are changed.”

Social media sites are built to be 'sticky' and addictive.  (Getty)Social media sites are built to be 'sticky' and addictive.  (Getty)

Social media sites are built to be ‘sticky’ and addictive. (Getty)

“The products are built to be attractive and what is attractive to some is addictive to others, that is clear.”

There are also increasing concerns about Facebook (and social media in general) and its impact on mental health. Analysis of early users of Facebook (when it was limited to US universities) found that it led to an increase in major depression by 7% and anxiety disorders by 20%.

A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Queensland found that taking a short five-day break from the Zuckerberg app actually lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

However, after five days, most of the 138 volunteers actually reported a drop in feelings of well-being – and were looking forward to getting back on Facebook.

The impact of the Like button is also linked to important political moments.

Facebook’s algorithms were used to influence the 2015 Philippines general election, the UK Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election.

In 2014, Cambridge Analytica employees collected the private data of tens of millions of Facebook users to build profiles of voters. The data of 87 million users was collected by an innocent-looking app and used to target political ads.

Facebook ‘Likes’ were key to this, allowing political groups to build complex psychological profiles for targeted advertising. Just a few ‘Likes’ were enough to build profiles that showed a person’s gender, who they would vote for, and could predict their vulnerability to substance abuse.

What does the future bring?

Social media expert Elisah van Allen, Head of Social Media at specialist communications agency 33Seconds, says the Like button has created entire economies, such as the rise of social media influencers, but also has a dark side in terms of impact on mental health from people.

Van Allen tells Yahoo News UK: “The ‘Like’ button on FB has changed the way we connect with individuals, brands and businesses. It lets people validate each other’s ideas, achievements, moments etc. quickly and easily, which creates positive reinforcement and encourages more people to have meaningful interactions online.

The Like button has also shaped online algorithms and influenced the content we see and the connections we make. Its impact on user engagement and content visibility has paved the way for influencers, content creators and brands to achieve success online, with it being leveraged as a recognized measure of popularity and relevance.

But the negative side is also very visible in today’s world, Van Allen says: in everything from the pressure to find approval online, to low-quality content produced to generate reactions.

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The changed media landscape created by the Like button has been blamed for everything from the rapid spread of fake news, which goes viral when users like and share anything that matches their worldview, to ‘bubble filtering’, where algorithms keep the user ‘ learning’ preferences and feed a distorted media landscape with only one side of the argument.

Van Allen says: “On the media and publishing side, you could argue that over time the ‘Like’ button has influenced the type of news content we consume and the way we respond to it – for example, influencing certain publications toward producing purposefully polarizing content, in order to provoke an immediate emotional response from readers.”

“Likes can be potentially harmful to our mental health and the validation-seeking behavior they can trigger. Finding the right balance between fostering a positive online environment and addressing the potential pitfalls of social validation is a challenge that we cannot ignore and must continue to address. being discussed; especially for the younger generations who are now growing up with social media in their lives.”

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