What does a Facebook Like really mean?

Image:  Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

What’re you saying when you “Like” a story about the Syrian Civil War in your Facebook News Feed?

Maybe that you enjoyed reading the story. Or maybe the fact the story’s even being covered in the first place. Or just the idea that whoever posted the article is spreading some kind of awareness. Of course, you could just be expressing your approval for the war in Syria.

And then: What are you saying if the next thing you “Like” is a picture of a friend’s baby?

Facebook’s the most pervasive single entity in the history of the worldnearly two billion worldwide users. It’s already had a massive impact on advertising and media, to say nothing of the way we interact with one another, and it could end up playing a critical role in a paradigm shift of the entertainment business as we know it. And of course, Facebook’s dramatic impact on politics (or lack thereof) has been argued ad nauseam since November.

Central to that experience is the Like. Introduced in 2009, the feature’s become so ubiquitous that “like” now tends to be associated with Facebook, as a proper noun: A Like. In 2010, Facebook claimed it saw 1 billion likes per day. And that was seven years ago.

Some of those Likes have consequences. A court in Switzerland recently fined a man 4,000 Swis francs (about $4,100) for hitting the button on a series of Facebook posts falsely accusing an animal rights activist of being a racist and fascist.

“The defendant clearly endorsed the unseemly content and made it his own,” the court said in a statement. America’s had a run in with this issue, too. In 2013, a group of employees at a Sheriff’s department were laid off, sometime after having “Liked” the Facebook page of the sheriff’s opponent in an upcoming election. The employees sued.

They lost at first, with a judge ruling that a Like on Facebook is not, in fact, protected speech. They then won on appeal, with a three-judge panel unanimously finding that a Like is indeed speech, and therefore, protected under the First Amendment.

“On the most basic level, clicking on the ‘like’ button literally causes to be published the statement that the User ‘likes’ something, which is itself a substantive statement,” wrote Chief Judge Williams Traxler in the judgment.

At the core of both these causes is what a Like actually means. In Switzerland, the legal precedent is now that it’s an endorsement. In the United States, a Like is speechand according to at least one judge, a literal expression of liking something.

But let’s be real: There’s no possible way this jives with the experiences of anybody who’s ever actually spent time on Facebook.

Parsing intent from someone hitting a button on the Internet is, at best, a faulty calculus of context. Trying to figure out what a Like means is a question that requires knowing everything about the time, place, content, and people involved in said Like. In a world where Facebook networks often include friends, family, colleagues, frenemies, old friends, and whoever else is around, that’s an incredibly messy proposition.

The reality that pressing “Like” isn’t the same thing as saying “like” wasn’t lost on Facebook. After years of jokes about needing a dislike button, the company introduced a variety of responses in October 2015, including anger and sadness. There’s still no Dislike button, but people had been given a way to issue a subtler, more meaningful response than just hitting “Like.”

And yet, the Like reigns supreme, with way more use than those emotional responses (thanks in part to Facebook’s design choices). It remains dominant and vague. In that sense, it’s taken on meaning unto itself. A Facebook Like is a Facebook Like, and no two Likes are the same.

Where the Like has very definite meaning, though? Inside Facebook. We know that Facebook’s almighty algorithm takes Likes to mean that the post should be amplified, shown to more people. Where Facebook’s concerned, a like is more than an endorsementit’s a positive signal.

“The act of liking something [on Facebook] is the lowest-hanging fruit of interaction design.”

“There’s no global consensus on what the Like button means some do it to validate a friends photo or a colleague’s point of view, others use it to follow a brand or celebrity to ensure that content always pops up in their feed,” said Sarah Sampsel, design director at Work & Co. “Either way, the act of liking something is the lowest-hanging fruit ofinteraction design.”

Perhaps therein lies the truest meaning of Facebook, if one exists. Facebook wants you to spend time on Facebook, especially in the news feed. If a Like is a positive signal that a post will keep you on Facebook for more time, a Like, in those terms, expresses the value of that post in terms of time.

So, again: A story about the war in Syria and a photo of a baby might have nothing in common…except that they might both be worth my time.

Or, rather, things I consider worth of the time of others.

Look at this baby.

Read this story. But, really:

Like what I Like. Whether you like it or not.

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