The like button: Something mutual, nothing too personal

On: September 14, 2011
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About Demet Dagdelen
My name is Demet and I am deeply dippy with all things digital. I am Turkish-Kurdish but I've been living in Hungary for the last 11 years, currently I am in Amsterdam doing an MA in New Media at the UvA. I am interested in the flow of information in a multi-platform environment and the role of the middlemen in the web ecology. Currently I am writing my -very data-driven - thesis on Anonymous. I have a BA in Communication and Media Studies from Hungary and I used to do a BSc in Mathematics, but I just transferred to Computer Science, which brings me tons of excitement and joy every day. Really, it does.


I would like to show, through a case study, what sort of an image we get of the “like” button, if we study it using object theoretical approaches, as in; if we examine how the meaning that the object carries changes in different contexts. The reason I’ve decided to concentrate on a given object is that, new media consists of a network that is formed by people and objects, and in order to make statements about this network on a macro level, it is important to examine the micro levels as well. I wanted to find out how the subject of the interview thinks about the websites that she interacts with and the objects that can be found on those sites. The main reason for choosing the “like” button was that the goal this object serves is extremely simple,the social function it wishes to carry out is summed up in its name. It is an infinitely simple object, yet it can carry dozens of different meanings. I do believe that an analysis of the object in itself will not provide us with too much insight, we have to think about it as part of a network.

I conducted an interview with Sophie, a female student at SZFE (Theatre and Film Academy of Budapest), aged 23, I asked her about the role of the virtual in her life. When I asked her how much time she spent online, she gave me an answer telling me about how much time she didn’t spend online; she said the only time she isn’t doing something on the internet is when she has to concentrate on various parts of her job, but other than that she is constantly online through her PC at home or her iPhone. She talked about nourishing all her relationships online and the fact that she couldn’t imagine being friends with anyone who didn’t have daily access to the Internet:

“I keep in touch with everyone online. I don’t think I have a close friend with whom I do not also have a virtual relationship, if such a person exists, than that person is not a close acquaintance of mine. This really is how things are. I know it sounds horrible, but it is true. If I have a daily relationship with someone, than I chat with them on Facebook or gtalk, I like everyone’s post, I read everyone’s blog…”

It is obvious that digital objects and the virtual realm aren’t only a tool or a substitute for things that are non-digital, nourishing relationships online doesn’t follow the same track as talking to someone in real life. One might think about the private message or e-mail as a substitute for a telephone call, but for those who move comfortably in the virtual, the two mean completely different things socially:

“It is so easy to quickly look at what a person has written about what is going on with their lives and talk to them with those in mind, that if I wanted to have a daily relationship with someone who doesn’t use the internet, then this would mean I’d have to call them every day. But calling them daily would be considered a very pushy gesture. Reacting to something someone has posted online is not pushy, it fits well within the social norms of our generation, but if I call them every day, then I become this crazy stalker. Even with those people whom I have a good relationship with, and with whom I interact with online everyday, by e.g. reacting to their posts or commenting on their blogs, I couldn’t imagine calling them everyday. I could phone them once a week, because I’d feel that that is the amount of telephone communication that would be considered normal  in our relationship.”

She has had three relationships that started online, and not through a dating site but through platforms that are utilized for nourishing already existing relationships. Despite stating that she didn’t use the digital objects consciously, we realized during our talk, that different objects that are used for communication purposes carry different levels of intimacy. In fact, she pointed out a protocol about how these objects are traditionally used and in what order:

“Like comes first…wait! Sending a friend request comes first, and then they do not instantly start commenting, because that is too personal. So at first they “like”, it is more like a gesture, expressing: ‘We haven’t yet formed a relationship, but I like the things you post.’  And you don’t have to say this, just “like”. And then, when you also start liking his posts, a mutual sympathy has formed, so you can start commenting, but nothing too personal: “Oh, that is my favorite movie!” “Mine too!”.  For example, a few months ago I liked something a guy I don’t know too well had posted, so he commented something like: “So, do you like it?” I answered that I did, in fact, like it, but that he had mistyped something. We exchanged about 7 or 8 comments, and then he wrote me a direct message asking me about how come I was still up at such a late hour. I didn’t reply to his message with another one, instead answered him through Facebook chat, and we started talking. We formed a relationship so personal, that it would have been impossible to get to that point in such little time had we been communicating offline. So meeting people online has this constructional characteristic, starting from least personal and arriving to more and more personal, step by step.”

So “platform-hopping” is utilized to provide an increasingly intimate quality to social interactions: like button, commenting, private message, chat. Almost everybody using these platforms around me are aware of this protocol. But are the social rules governing these objects that we all use universal? According to Sophie’s experiences, they are not. They do carry out social functions, but these functions may be interpreted differently by everyone. Sophie, who is a very enthusiastic girl who doesn’t scare away from giving positive feedback to those around her, uses the buttons on Facebook in a way that fits her nature, the objects on the site make it possible for her to do so, but it turns out they can be misinterpreted:

“But it is possible that I am wrong about thinking that what counts as more, or less, personal is a straightforward thing. I have been accused multiple times about having too intimate relationships with people on Facebook. For example, when we were only flirting with D., my ex-boyfriend, who at the time had a girlfriend, when I didn’t even think that we were going to end up in a relationship, his girlfriend started getting jealous about me liking the things he posted on Facebook and I was told, in person, to not like everything he posts, because his girlfriend was getting “suspicious”. Even though, at the time I thought of it more as a friendly gesture than flirting; I like what he is posting, so I like it.”

What do we know about the like button? We can find out about its intended use by reading the post about the button on the official Facebook blog: “We’ve just introduced an easy way to tell friends that you like what they’re sharing on Facebook with one easy click. Wherever you can add a comment on your friends’ content, you’ll also have the option to click “Like” to tell your friends exactly that: “I like this.” Recently, I had a friend write a note about running her first marathon and another friend upload pictures of his new baby. In both cases, they ended up with over 30 comments, all saying: “Awesome!” “Congrats!” The aggregation of the sentiment “I like this” makes room in the comments section for longer accolades.” (Pearlman, 2009)

So the main concept was that by introducing this new object, the percentage of substantial comments would increase; those who don’t have anything else to express other than the fact that they like what is being posted, will not use the comment space. But as we can see through Sophie’s account as well, the introduction of this new digital object changed what commenting means within a social context. By implementing the like button, the creators of the platform turned commenting into a more intimate action, the place commenting held in the intimacy protocol has changed. Therefore, the meaning and importance of digital objects can continuously change, even when we look at a very simple object, that carries within its name the role that it fills in societal life.

Another thing we can observe is that same objects may mean different things based on an individual context as opposed to a social one. Sophie, in this case, uses the like button as the first step in flirting as well as a means to express the simple statement: “I like what you are posting!” The thing that makes the distinction in which meaning she assigns to the same action and how it is interpreted is, what other objects and actions it is accompanied by within the network. So the meaning (and value) of liking emerges with time and usage, it is important to take into account how and where it is situated in different contexts.

Looking at the virtual with methods used in material culture research gives us an image of the virtual as a platform with individual and social contexts, where social realities take place and where they can be observed and analyzed on a case-by-case basis. I believe that this approach is useful when conduction studies about people’s interactions with e.g. social networking sites, and researchers have found interesting results using methods similar to this. I believe, that the steps introduced by the object theoretical approach give us a better understanding of the objects in question, these steps are mainly: defining the intended use of the object, observing what it is being used for through individual case studies and noting the importance of (within social and individual context) how people use it and how they shape their social relations through the usage of objects.

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