Since the inception of social media platforms, the way people communicate, find entertainment, and even consume news has shifted. It may be hard to remember a time before you were able to "like" friends' posts, but it wasn't always there. When Facebook introduced the feature it revolutionized the way users could communicate and became the standard that basically every other platform would adopt in some fashion.
But with the "like" revolution came some unintended consequences.
It turns out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was not a fan of the Like button in the early days of its development. He thought it would reduce commenting and the sharing of posts. But, a problem kept popping up that needed to be addressed.
When Facebook rolled out its News Feed layout in 2006, redundancy became an issue. Whenever someone would post a picture or make an announcement, like an engagement, users often would leave the same comments over and over. It consisted of the typical congratulations, "I like this," or some iteration of that phrase, so Leah Pearlman, product engineer at Facebook, decided to come up with a fix.
Pearlman's solution was to convert those same monotonous comments of support into a single click of support. Pearlman brainstormed with fellow Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein on a project codenamed "props." Now it seems like a simple idea, but at the time in 2007 it was an unrealized concept and the group needed to figure out what it would even look like and where it would be accessible.
Several ideas were thrown in the pot, including plus/minus signs and stars, with the group eventually landed on the thumbs up icon. However, Facebook ran into a cultural conundrum: the platform is a global community, but the thumbs up sign is not universally recognized as a positive reaction or a sign of approval.
In places like West Africa and the Middle East, the gesture is deemed offensive and is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger in the U.S. Despite the internal back and forth among developers, the group forged ahead with the thumbs up design.
Props to Likes
With the design decided upon, the team came back to the name of their project. The term "props" just didn't mesh with the Facebook product. Rosenstein suggested calling it the "awesome button" but that lasted just a few months.
The term "like" was eventually coined even though their colleagues originally panned it as boring and bland. By November 2007, the group produced a prototype Like button and the phrase ended up sticking, but they still had to address Zuckerberg's concern that the button would reduce engagement.
Research would find that engagement actually shot up, and that the Like button could also be used to rank popular posts higher on the Facebook newsfeed. Zuckerberg agreed that it was a hit, and on February 9, 2009, the Like button was officially launched sitewide.
Facebook Didn't Invent Likes, They Monetized Them
It is important to note that while Facebook's Like button became the standard for showing support across various internet platforms and websites, they weren't the first to come up with the general idea.
There is some discrepancy about where the very first internet "like"-type interaction occurred, with some crediting Vimeo as early as November 2005. Vimeo's goal was to create a favorites section that could be built by the accumulation of likes on its content. The idea apparently was derived in part from news aggregator Digg. The "digg" button allowed users to filter news stories and bury posts so that similar stories wouldn't make it to their homepage.
There were a host of other websites using similar techniques to funnel content to and away from users, but for Facebook, its global reach essentially dwarfed those other platforms. The Like button's popularity, in part, took off because of its massive number of daily users.
Facebook's Likes immediately became popular, but people weren't just using it to share their thoughts on posts and videos. Acquiring lots of Likes became a way for users to distinguish their internet worth from someone else's.
"It feels good to put yourself out there. It then gets curtailed by this sort of attention economy dynamic where nobody might respond or like it or engage with it, and in that way, it becomes a competition," Samira Rajabi, director of technology influenced pedagogy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Cheddar.
For young teens and adults, the impact of the Like button can have tremendous personal impact. A number of studies have shown that when young people receive less engagement on their posts, their mental health takes a blow, and they become more emotionally distressed.
A study by the University of Texas found that young people with low self-worth are at even greater risk to suffer from mental health issues like depression because feedback from peers is important to how some youth view themselves.
The issue isn't just exclusive to young people either. Studies have shown that getting likes releases dopamine in both youths and adults, providing them a rewarding sensation whenever their posts are received well. The impact on younger people, however, was found to be much greater.
"When we get acculturated into a system from an early age, we come to see that system as normal or natural. So, what's happening with a lot of young people who grow up with social media, the Like button, the attention economy, it's not inherent for them to question this space," Rajabi said.
Likes Alter Reality
Like buttons have impacted more than the mental health of young people — they're dictating how people perceive reality.
Facebook's algorithms take note of users' likes and curate personalized news feeds. That means not everyone's news feed is the same, which makes sense because we do not all like the same things. But, this starts to become an issue when it comes to news and facts.
During the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, millions of users were exposed to thousands of ads that were purchased by a Russian agency with the goal of disrupting the process. The result was a deluge of misinformation circulating not just on Facebook but also making its way to other internet platforms. Seeds of distrust related to social movements like Black Lives Matter were planted in the psyche of Americans.
While there are efforts being made, according to Facebook, to try and curb the spread of misinformation and disinformation, there is no catch-all system in place to provide users with the full scope of stories examining perspectives from more than one angle.
"Rather than engaging with those ideas in a really substantive way, we're really dealing with caricatures of either party that have been produced by the constant remediation of information on social media. That's really harmful if we're only comparing Like with Like. We're not really participating effectively in conversation," Rajabi said.
Furthermore, the issue now isn't just limited to Facebook; Twitter and YouTube algorithms are also some of the biggest culprits when it comes to surfacing only content they think a user is interested in.
The Invasion of Personal Space
A Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, shows a sign posted at Facebook headquarters near Facebook's User Operations Safety Team workers office in Menlo Park, Calif. The "like" button on Facebook seems like a relatively clear way to express your support for something, but a federal judge says that doesn't mean clicking it is constitutionally protected speech. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
The data that tech companies collect from the Like button has uses that extend well beyond your newsfeed. If you stray away from Facebook and visit another website, you will likely see some advertisements based on what you've liked on your account.
Despite knowing that Facebook tracks users, even off-site and that the platform collects tons of personal information, its addictive qualities make it hard for most people to fully exile themselves from the platform. That is unless you are Justin Rosenstein.
In 2017, Rosenstein, a key member in the development of the Like button, deleted the app from his phone because he noticed he was getting addicted
"What we don't recognize is that we are cultivating that bias through what we like. We act like the company's doing it independently of us, but we're participating in this thing just in the same way. We are their labor force in a lot of ways," Rajabi noted.
Likes… A Thing of the Past?
The day in 2019 when Facebook and its sister platform Instagram announced they were testing whether they should hide Likes, social media platforms were sent into an uproar. The announcement sent shock waves through influencers and celebrities alike who had come to base their livelihoods on verifiable metrics that potential business partners could see by simply visiting their page and assessing the number of followers and Likes they'd accumulate on a post. The testing is ongoing, as confirmed by Instagram in March 2021 after the company accidentally blocked Likes to more users than it intended.
The idea behind removing the Like button was to encourage more posting, reduce anxiety among at-risk groups, and help cut back on cyberbullying. But for some, the damage has already done and users will simply find another way to keep "competition" alive.
"Because I think what's going to happen is, they will find another way to measure themselves against the images that they're seeing, whether it's publicly or private," Rajabi said.
This is part of 'The Lightbulb Moment', A Cheddar and CuriosityStream Original Series, the show that uncovers the surprising impact of less-celebrated inventions and the moments of inspiration that made them possible.
Video produced by Edward Vega and Andrew Davis. Article written by Lawrence Banton.