Published on February 27th, 20131
What’s the Thing about “Like!” on Facebook?
By Berit Skog
“I become happy whenever my friends ‘like’ the messages and images that I post on Facebook.”
About 90 percent of the participants in my latest Facebook survey respond positively to this statement. The formulation may influence the response, but the overwhelming level of support indicates that a “like” on Facebook tells a story of its own.
The study, which includes 1265 individuals, covers a number of other questions related to the “like” symbol, providing the basis for a closer analysis of the underlying symbolism.
According to Facebook, 3.2 billion “likes” are daily posted on the website. Status updates, comments, photos, links, etc., could all be rewarded with a “like.” This manifests itself in two different ways. First, a red light on the upper part of the home page of the person receiving the “like.” Second, as statistics indicating the number of ”likes” below the comment, photo, etc., that the person in question has decided to share. The visual manifestation of the “like” symbol has turned it into a robust device and successful business concept. It makes itself felt both within and outside the virtual network. So what is the big thing about “like!” on Facebook?
To start with, the “like” symbol plays an important social role. The fundamental idea of Facebook is to maintain the user’s social network. You can communicate with friends via the status line, the wall, the inbox, etc. In addition, the “like” function is an effective channel of communication. The above mentioned result indicates that nearly everyone taking part in the survey reacts positively towards receiving a “like.” It is seen as a friendly gesture, and paves the way for a favour in return.
Many people accordingly think they need to make a similar response to what their friends share. Approximately 35 percent of the survey participants back the statement “I think I should ‘like’ what my closest friends post.” In this way, a “like” may cause a circular effect. It is a social symbol in itself, but it also has the potential of building relations. The introduction of the “like” function can be described as a stroke of genius by the Facebook company as it has caused an increase in the web traffic.
A popularity meter
Another aspect is the “like” sign’s symbolism. To receive many “likes” could be seen to reflect how well liked you are by your Facebook friends and that your updates are appreciated. For this reason the ability to get many ”likes” has become an achievement. The statistics showing the winners and losers in the “like” game are there for everyone to see. This has turned the “like” into a popularity meter.
Accordingly, a number of people have started adjusting their behaviour to the logic of the “like” market. Through strategic adjustment they wish to achieve as many “likes” as possible, notably by posting messages and images that may appeal to others. About half of the participants responded positively to the following statement: ”I rather publish things that I think others will “like.” This is a far more pronounced trend among people aged 13-15 than among those who are 39 years or older (56 percent vs. 37 percent). This is a clear indication that the hunt for “likes” is particularly common among young people.
A third aspect is reflected in the fact that the numbers of “likes” has come to represent a statistical measurement. It has become part of the image-building of oneself and others. To receive many “likes” could positively affect your self-image and self-confidence, especially among identity-seeking youngsters. Implicitly, it could also have an adverse effect on those who are not rewarded with “thumbs up” for their updates.
A significantly higher number of youths than adults admit to being disappointed when not receiving a sufficient amount of “likes” and deleting messages that nobody “likes.” The latter phenomenon must be viewed in the context of image-building on Facebook. One would rather wish to promote a positive image of oneself.
The ”like” statistics would often tend to follow the individual from the virtual network and into real life arenas, such as the school yard. This may not be a positive experience for everyone, like those who receive few “likes.” What happens on Facebook does not necessarily remain on Facebook.
A fourth factor is evident in how the meaning of “likes” is reflected in the norms regarding the use of the symbol on Facebook. Here are a couple of examples:
“Sympathy likes.” The users are of course aware of how important it is to receive positive feedback on what is posted. For this reason, a number of people press ”like” because they sympathize with those who receive few “likes.” In the current study, 25 percent reveal that they “use sympathy likes in order to be friendly with someone who gets few likes.” More youths than adults tend to back others in this way. This could be a result of them observing how the lack of response affects others, like when their friends become sad.
Expectations towards “likes.” Norms could also be reflected in the expectations one has towards others and their use of the “like” function. About 30 percent respond positively to the statement “I expect that my closest friends ‘like’ my updates and images.” Similarly, 30 percent back the statement “I like the updates of those who like mine.” These findings reflect an expectation of reciprocity in the use of “likes” and an implicitly expressed norm: “Like me, and I will like you.”
The hunt for “likes”
The “like” button on Facebook could serve several functions. In this article, the focus has been on the “like” as a social resource and popularity meter, an image-builder and norm generator for life in the virtual world. The effect of the “like” has also moved from the web and into real life, where the number of ”likes” and its associated status, is particularly affecting the behaviour of young people. ”The hunt for likes” could be viewed as an underlying dimension and a key premise for further analysis of the results in this survey.
This article is based on The Facebook survey 2012: A total 1265 people with Facebook profiles (from 13 years and younger to 39 years and older) participated in the survey which was carried out in Oslo and Trondheim in September/October 2012. The sample is not representative and the results only apply to the respondents. The results presented here are a selection of statements from the “like segment” of the study, one among several topics. A Norwegian version of this article is available at www.forskning.no.
*Cover photo by Sean MacEntee, demonstration photo by Adam Fagen.