Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kill the Like Button

I’ve been lamenting the choice of the “Like” verbiage within social networking for quite some time now, but the problem’s not going away.  It’s becoming more adopted by various websites across the web, and continuing to gain momentum within our culture.

Most of us primarily associate it with Facebook, but the truth is that they don’t own it. Other websites, such as Youtube, carry their own “Like” button to be used for a similar purpose. The button is all over the place, especially being used on websites that want you to share their content via Facebook, or in commercials that say “Like us on Facebook!”

Let’s break down this word for a minute. The traditional use of this word is pretty complicated, and carries many possible meanings as an adjective, adverb, conjunction, idiom, interjection, noun, and verb. Specifically, it’s that interjection that has aggravated people so much over the years. Though the word goes way back, the origin of this use of the word is in the 1980s. Here’s the definition from Dictionary.com:

Informal. (used especially in speech, often non-volitionally or habitually, to preface a sentence, to fill a pause, to express uncertainty, or to intensify or neutralize a following adjective): Like, why didn't you write to me? The music was, like, really great, you know?

Associated with the valley girls of the 80s, it pushed its way into widespread use by the youth of the 90s and held firm with the young and middle-aged alike into the 2000s. Sometimes the use of the word is so strong that a person’s speech is pretty much impossible to follow. There have even been some guerilla campaigns to try to stop or slow the overuse of the word as an interjection:

So why would social networking websites begin to use this already-overused word on their pages? Well, in Facebook’s case, the button used to be the Awesome button, which would be used as a generic positive comment on someone’s status updates, basically affirming that the declared content was of good quality. Clicking the button would basically say, “I think this is awesome!”

They then changed it to the “Like” button, which I presume was seen as more professional or accurate. “I like this,” you would say instead while clicking the button. This use of the word as a verb slowly morphed into a more bizarre use of the word as a verb. Now, people will say—with complete confidence—such bizarre things as “Like us on Facebook!”

However, this button doesn’t necessarily mean that you like something. People use it to approve content; to give it credibility. It’s a way for people to authorize and recommend content to others, but also to give feedback to the author that the content was highly rated. What the button actually means is “I approve this content.” This gives people mixed feelings when they go to “Like” something that may not be the most positive comment on Facebook. Here’s an example of a status update:

My cat died today. He lived a great long life of 17 years, and will be dearly missed. Chubby, you were the best cat ever.

Would you “Like” that? It’s a tough decision, right? You may not want anyone to think that you like that their cat died, but you may want to lend support for them and tell them that you like their eulogy. In this case, the problem can be side-stepped by actually posting a comment that supports the person posting it. However, this message could be “approved” without worry that the person would take it the wrong way.

The problem with this verbiage goes in a different direction when somebody posts something negative:

I fell in a mud puddle on the side of the road today and chipped my tooth on the curb! What a crappy day!

A total ass would intentionally “like” this, but it happens unintentionally as well. The person “liking” it may have thought that the comment was intended to be a shared bit of comedic unfortunate circumstance for the entertainment of the fellow friends, when in reality it was a tragic and disturbing experience. The person that “liked” it now looks like an ass.

As a result, people have started lobbying for a “dislike” button, but Facebook continues to insist that they don’t wish to add negative social tools to their network and encourage people to dislike things. What they need is a neutral “approval” button, but “like” is equivalent to Internet currency now, so that won’t be changing any time soon.

In the case of Youtube, “Like” exists alongside “Dislike,” but they’re used to indicate the rating of a video. In this case, the use of these two buttons seems like it would be pretty straight-forward, right? You either like or dislike a video, and you click the appropriate button. But wait, it’s not quite that simple.

Youtube used to have a five-star ratings system for videos to allow the viewing community to differentiate between good and bad content, but more importantly, to isolate extremely good and extremely bad content. To simplify this situation, Youtube went all-or-nothing on their ratings and removed the grey area. Now you either like it or dislike it, but many people don’t understand which component of the video they’re rating.

For example, you might be watching a video of something tragic, like a horrific live performance by Amy Winehouse in Belgrade. Because it’s widely talked about in the news, you want to witness it for yourself, so you search for a video of this unspeakably bad performance. You find it; it’s up close to the stage, shows the massive train wreck in reasonable quality, and the length of the video is good. It’s an excellent capture of a horrible moment.

“Wow, this is bad!” you say, while laughing uncontrollably and highly entertained. Dislike! Now the owner of this content wonders why they’ve shared good content with a 1:5 ratio of like:dislike.

There are some people who have legitimately disliked this video. “I don’t want to watch this stupid idiot be drunk and moronic on stage,” they say. Still others, who are pleased with the results of their search, who found the video they were looking for and were entertained, have “Disliked” the video despite approving of its quality. This video, which probably deserves to be highly rated, is rated low even though people like it, because of the word “Like.” “Well, I don’t really like that she’s hammered beyond belief, and her singing doesn’t sound good,” they rationalize, while clicking the “dislike” button.

Google’s tried to reinvent the concept by introducing their “+1” button, but it doesn’t seem to be picking up steam just yet. Their hearts are in the right place, though; the idea is that you are recommending the content to your friends. However, this still doesn’t cover all concepts at once. You might recommend that someone watch an Amy Winehouse train wreck, but would you recommend a feline eulogy? Probably not.

What it comes down to is that we need a way to rate or approve content without expressing support for the content. Do we need a third button? The grey-area button that says, “I don’t like the subject, but I appreciate the content as a whole”? Do we need a “Like—under certain circumstances” button?

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