When Facebook first launched the like button the world was unprepared for the ramifications of this supposedly-benign social validation mechanism. After all, there was no dislike button. Facebook wanted to give people a way to reinforce sharing and so why not show the sharer how many people like what they share?
But it is no surprise that humans are competitors, and as a result the number of likes has become a sort of measurement stick between different people and even between the types of things that people post themselves. And where there is competition and measurement, there are winners and losers.
Fastforward to today’s world where the headiness of early tech promises has morphed into weariness and trust in the major tech players continues to plummet. More articles pop into newsfeeds about digital addiction, digital detox, radicalization and attention deficit disorder all while the time that we spend in front of a screen continues to eat away at humanity’s average day. The Internet is not the same place as it used to be.
Thumbs up seems like a harmless way to show approval, but now that we have a few decades of perspective, we can see that nothing is truly harmless. The battle for likes consumes everyone who has a stake in digital, be they brands, influencers, or the average person. People can have serious envy and even feel depressed when they share content that doesn’t get as many likes as they would *ahem* like.
Sharing is scarring
Now Facebook is definitely not in the business of caring about the people that use its platform – we’ve seen that with the way that they have operated in the past. They care about eyeballs and time spent on their platforms. Many people feel very strongly about their Instagram feeds, so much so that they will auto-censor themselves and not share content that won’t get that many likes. This is one of the reasons why Instagram is still a good place to scroll for new content, and one of the reasons why they copied Snapchat’s stories concept. But when people restrict what they share, well they aren’t using Facebook’s ecosystem as much as they could be. And Facebook can’t have that now can they?
Instagram is already testing the removal of public likes in 7 different countries, so it seems like it will be arriving worldwide soon.
Facebook’s engagement figures (especially for brands) have been in a death spiral for years now after its myriad algorithm updates. Brands compare their content to one another’s and now are forced to boost their organic posts with media budget in order to keep likes up. This is oftentimes an entirely misguided strategy since the engagement KPIs rarely have a correlation to business results and in many cases it’s done only to keep less digital-literate bosses happy and a social media manager employed.
Hiding like tallies is a good way for Facebook to hide its declining popularity. Users would still see their own post results, but they wouldn’t be able to compare to anyone else’s. Personally I’ve seen my posts and posts from brands that I work with dwindle down from having likes in the triple digits to next to nothing.
Let’s focus on what drives business…
Likes do have a value in terms of the visibility of your content, but it can be measured in fractions of a cent – if it can be truly measured at all. But for far too long too many brands have focused on “engagement” as a justification for huge marketing and content budgets to expand their audiences on Facebook. Likes are not clicks, they are not visits to your site, leads for your database or actual sales of your products. Likes are likes, that’s about it. Removing like tallies is the first step towards the removal of this false construct that has served as social media’s biggest marketing distraction.
…and get on with our lives
People will always find ways to compare themselves to others. So follower counts can replace like tallies for those who really want to judge or feel shitty about themselves. But which average person needs to know that the latest picture of Zendaya has a million likes? Who cares? Who cares if you want to post a picture of your lunch and it only gets three likes? The implicit action of social media is following someone, so if I choose to follow you then you can assume I want to see what you post until I don’t and then I will unfollow you.
Likes serve no real purpose other than to encourage people to share more, and for this reason they will never go away. Likes were the motor that drove Facebook to the height of success that it enjoys today. But at least we may no longer need to be innundated by others who are posting only for likes.