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Disliking Facebook’s Like

It’s been just over a year since Facebook spread its Like button across the Internet and it’s hard to argue with the numbers. The average media site integrated with Facebook is said to have enjoyed a 300 percent rise in traffic; some major retailers have reported that sales increased as much as tenfold since adding Like buttons to their pages; Eventbrite has said that each click on its Like buttons is worth $2.52 in ticket sales, a figure beaten by Ticketmaster which says that its Like clicks bring $5.30 each. There’s no question that the Like button has been a boon for publishers and a moneymaker for marketers. It’s made sharing easier and provided an easy way for customers to spread personal recommendations — the best way for businesses to build their brand. But while the Like button has been good for some, it doesn’t work for everyone.

Part of the problem with Like is its public nature. Clicking the button is easy, and it’s easy, too, to forget that every time you do hit the button you tell the world about your personal tastes. That confession can have a real effect. Announce on a whim that you like a particular band, for example, and the next time you start up… say, Pandora… you might well find that the radio station knows more about you than you thought. Similarly, a quick browse of the profile of someone you barely know can turn up all sorts of personal preferences that might have been better kept personal. Liking is easy; Facebook’s privacy controls, which can block APIs and acquaintances from seeing your recommendations when used properly, are a lot more complex.

Like is too Much Like Love

The privacy issues surrounding Like are well-known and, with a bit of effort, can be dealt with. But Facebook isn’t just a commercial service that helps businesses to spread their message virally or a site on which users struggle to protect their privacy while chatting to friends, family acquaintances and people they might have spoken to once at a conference. It’s also become known as a platform on which activists can plan demonstrations and bring together like-minded people for campaigns. It’s here that the Like button is particularly inappropriate.

The problem is that Like is positive while campaigns can be negative. Campaigners who fail to name their pages carefully can end up asking people to support something that they oppose. One page, for example, has been set up to raise awareness of Henry Kissinger’s actions during his time as Secretary of State. The page is entitled simply: Henry Kissinger, War Criminal. Next to the title is the thumbs-up icon and an invitation to Like it.

So if you click the button, are you saying that you “like” Henry Kissinger, War Criminal or that you don’t like him because you think he’s a war criminal? Of course, the context makes the intention clear and the Like refers to the group not the title, but there’s no question that the position of the button and the choice of word make for a incongruous mix. If someone were to create a page to support Henry Kissinger as a war criminal it would look pretty similar.

Even more unusual is the presence of Like next to pages set up specifically to encourage dislike — or worse. A Page entitled “I Hate Racist People” has managed to pick up over 22,000 people who have indicated that they like hating haters. That’s confusing enough. Even worse though is that many of the people who pressed Like to say that they hate racist people only did so to bait the people who really do like hating racist people. It turns out that they not only like being racist, they also like lying about not being racist.

The heart of the problem is the choice of the work “Like.” Not everything we want to bring to the attention of others is something we like. The interest page about Global Warming, for example, also carries the Like button, suggesting that anyone who clicks it likes the idea of the world getting hotter. It’s not surprising that while this page has a little over 15,000 supporters, the Stop Global Warming page on Causes.com, a phrase that’s easier to support, has picked up more than 320,000 likes.

Like Versus Recommend

Nor does Facebook provide a “dislike” button that could function in the same way as a vote down can work on Digg. The site does allow “unlike” as a way of removing a vote from something you’ve already liked (and perhaps regain a little privacy) but that’s not quite the same as the disapproval that a “dislike” button would bring. (Although at least “unlike” is a fair use of the word. As linguist Gabe Doyle explains “unlike” can be the right term despite its alternative meaning as “not resembling.”)

But perhaps the most important point about Facebook’s choice of “like” as its term of approval is that while it doesn’t work sometimes, it does work most of the time. It’s shorter, snappier and more personal than “recommend” which feels very business-like (and which would make a terrible first name.) It’s taken off in a way that Google’s “Plus One” really hasn’t and it’s more about the user, rather than the recipient, than the bland “share.” Click Like and you’re saying something about you and your tastes; hit “Share” and you’re saying something about the people you’re hoping to share the article with. It’s certainly better than Wikipedia’s plan to show appreciation to editors by sending them virtual gifts.

For companies struggling with the right terms and copy for their services then perhaps the best option isn’t to choose the words that everyone can like all the time but to pick the words that do the job. “Like” for all its weaknesses, occasional inappropriateness and odd ungrammatical situations has had an effect. It’s created a new zeitgeist, built traffic, helped businesses improve their revenues and spread across the Web. That’s something any new venture would like.

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