More than any other feature, the thumbs-up on Facebook — along with its cousins, the Instagram and Twitter hearts — encapsulate everything that’s wrong with social media. It’s time to start visualizing a world where it doesn’t exist.
The Like has become the currency of carelessness — a way to show we approve without being deeply invested. In many cases, it covers for a lack of attention. It helps fake news propagate, discourages meaningful conversations, encourages shallowness, and exacerbates the most psychologically damaging effects of social media.
If social media addiction is the disease of our age, it’s difficult to think of a feature that feeds that addiction more than the thumbs up. Pressing it repeatedly, like a rat in an experiment, we feed our innate need to be noticed.
The question of how many Likes we’ve received keeps us coming back to our feeds over and over again to see who has acknowledged us in this most basic way.
That has trained us to be passive, lazy friends who substitute Likes for real conversation.
And who can blame us? It’s just too easy. Instead of asking how people are or what’s new in their lives, we can just double tap on their latest Instagram selfie and convince ourselves that it’s the same as actually keeping up with a friend.
More disturbing are the potential longterm effects of all this empty Liking. Putting aside the physical consequences of ingesting laundry detergent in the name of Likes — to take an extreme example — research suggests that liking is detrimental to mental health.
Even Facebook admits this. The company’s executives have cited research that suggests passively using Facebook leads to worse mental health. One found that liking more posts was tied to worse mental and physical health and “decreased life satisfaction.”
This is pretty much why Facebook’s 2018 News Feed revamp is placing less emphasis on posts that get a lot of Likes and more on those that spark conversation in the comments.
That’s a start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The entire feature should be eliminated from every public-facing part of the service.
I’m aware that Facebook isn’t any more likely to get rid of the like than it is to kill News Feed. The company, after all, runs on Likes. The button is one of the most telling signals the company has in determining what its 2 billions users, well, like.
Figuring out the details of what each Facebook user likes and dislikes is literally what fuels Facebook’s multi-billion dollar advertising business. Taking away that signal would have unknown implications on Facebook’s business.
But Facebook should, for once, put its users before its business and do it anyway. Perhaps a world where we can only comment, rather than mindlessly mash the button or choose an emoji, would be better for all of us.