Are the days of Facebook’s like button numbered?

Rumour has it that Facebook is looking to do away with likes. Or at least that the likes will be hidden, so that no one except the recipient may see them. In fact, Facebook-owned Instagram has already tested taking them away. Idka’s Chief Marketing Officer, Elizabeth Perry, weighs up the pros and cons of unliking the like button.


A good idea? Or, a terrible one? The question sparks perhaps a more important one: What’s the motivation to do away with what has become such a vital measure of worth, both for the individual and for the enterprise? Likes, after all, are tokens of value – not just self-worth kind of value, but actual money kind of value. Companies are judged based on how many likes they receive on platforms like Facebook. Prospective customers and investors alike have been known to make decisions driven by likes. Fake, farmed, bought … the like is one of the most sought-after currencies of the digital age.

Likes, after all, are tokens of value – not just self-worth kind of value, but actual money kind of value.

A brief history of the like

And, no, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent it. The story goes back to 2005, when a man named Rob Manuel, founder of the online joke-sharing message board, B3ta, needed a way for users to get to the “good stuff” more quickly, rather than wading through a sea of content to find it. After some noodling, he came up with a button that read “I like this,” so that the content with the most votes rose to the top. The concept took off – but the effect would be nothing like that Facebook like most of us have become so obsessed with.

Fast forward to today, the like is everywhere … and everything. And, nowhere is it more powerful than on Facebook. Why?

It’s a combination of three things. First, there was the social graph, which allowed people to find connections and connections of connections. In effect, the social graph was a way to find out how everyone was connected to everyone else.

Facebook took that concept beyond its original application (for the benefit of the user) and to something that became wildly attractive to the advertiser. They did what was unimaginable at the time and essentially connected the entire Internet. Suddenly, there was a public launchpad for everything and the six degrees of separation theory was no longer just an idea.

Then there was the newsfeed – the endless scroll through your friends’ updates, profile changes, etc. Instead of a stream of content personalized for the creator, the newsfeed was now “personalized” for the reader, or more appropriately put, the consumer.

The like changed everything

In a recent interview for Vice, ex-Facebook employee, Leah Pearlman – credited with introducing the Like button on Facebook in 2009 – explains that the like solved two problems: The first was what was referred to as “the redundant problem” (too much of the same message in response to a post) and second, not unlike B3ta, the ability to find a post amidst a sea of content. The idea was an instant success. “50 comments became 150 likes almost immediately,” says Leah Pearlman.

Now, the like had new meaning. But, not just for the user. The like gave Facebook the ability to pinpoint what users were reacting to and what they “liked”. People’s behaviour – on and off the platform – became mappable, turned into behavioural profiles. Sold to whomever wanted to purchase them. Advertisers were paying for access to this data, so that they could more accurately target prospective customers.

The data produced by all our likes was analysed across our social graphs and used to tell the algorithms what to show in our newsfeeds (not just ads, but content too). This combination of occurrences would eventually shape the way we saw the world – not just through ads, but through fake news, hidden political messages, memes, and bringing us more and more content that would trigger those likes we talk about here. And so, social media manipulation was born.

For users, the like was not only engaging, but also eventually addictive. Facebook was now a highly “personalized” window to the world. An easy way to react to posts, rather than taking the time to comment, the like was addictive because of people’s innate hunger for approval, validation, belonging. They had us hooked.

As time went on, people and companies were spending more time counting likes than they were freely sharing. Reactions counted for more than content.

As time went on, people and companies were spending more time counting likes than they were freely sharing. Reactions counted for more than content. It could be argued that there was lost creativity due to that ultimate goal of getting likes. The numbers showed that more reactions were garnered by posts that evoked emotion – shock, anger, sadness, excitement. So, the more outrageous, shocking, divisive and depressing the content, the better.

And, without likes, we were not enough. Instead of getting a sense of connection and wellbeing, we were comparing ourselves with others. 

Needless to say, the years gone by have brought mass dislike to Facebook. From psychologists to journalists, to technologists and industry leaders, criticism of the platform … of the business model and the man behind it … is pervasive. But is removing one of the most valuable features from its platform going to solve the problem?

Why get rid of likes?

Facebook was quoted as saying they would consider removing like counts to “prevent users from destructively comparing themselves to others and possibly feeling inadequate if their posts don’t get as many likes.” But here’s the thing: You and Facebook will still see the likes. And, many say, third party tools will likely be able to get in there too. The feature will only be hidden from others in your feed.

But there’s more: The like is just one of many ways to map user behaviour. In the fine print, Facebook does what it wants with your data. It is part owner of your most personal information. Otherwise put, the supposed goal to “connect people” has morphed into the goal to capitalise on people’s information. That’s the business model. The more information they can gather, the more they make. So, it is probable there will be something else. Losing the like might just make comments more valuable and more focused, for example. Trolling will still be there, and maybe, in the absence of likes, even more of a problem.

Should we do away with likes on all platforms?

Of course, Facebook isn’t the only platform that uses likes. People like them! Even on Idka, where the mission is to encourage meaningful engagement for the user, one of the most requested features is some sort of reaction button.

Today’s likes-driven culture – like it or not – has changed the way we do virtually everything.

The founders did away with a like or approval button because they didn’t want to foster a likes-driven culture. But, persistent requests have them wondering. … What should we do? Would some sort of “acknowledgement” button make sense? How do we encourage engagement, while keeping it meaningful?

Today’s likes-driven culture – like it or not – has changed the way we do virtually everything. The way we interact with our friends and friends of friends, the way we communicate at work, how we behave, what business decisions we make, and ultimately maybe even how we view the world.

It is likely that, in the absence of a like on Facebook, people will go elsewhere to get their fix. But maybe, in the absence of other factors (the social graph and the news feed) and without an ad-driven business model, the like can survive?

We can’t erase time, but we don’t want to take part in the psychological malaise that may be at least partially due to one small but very powerful measure of value, called the like.


Elizabeth Perry, CMO, Idka