Facebook: Do you like to Like?

Although most people undoubtedly use Facebook to stay in touch with the daily lives of family and friends, there are other uses.

I’ve joined several groups that support online courses—particularly MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)—and have started Facebook groups of my own.

I found the shared camaraderie to be highly rewarding—especially on MOOCs lacking an active discussion forum.

Post an idea, suggestion, or sample of work from the course and responses can range from enthusiastic comments to … meh.

But there’s something common to most posts that we grow accustomed to seeing: the little blue thumb called a “Like” and its associated number.

When we don’t get Likes, oh boy, does it stand out like a sore thumb!

I like to Like in these contexts:

  • to express that I enjoy, support, or appreciate content.
  • as a mark of gratitude for engagement in conversation.
  • as an anecdotal indicator of relative content preference (this seems to work best on very large groups).
  • as a social motivator.

And I’m very interested in the psychological dynamic related to the Like.

How does it alter our perceptions when our content is Liked vs not Liked?

When Facebook registers that someone has “seen” our content, but they didn’t “Like” it, how does that make us feel?

I found myself feeling disappointed … wondering why someone would see my content and not Like it.

Was it not interesting? What could I improve about it? And what about when we post some work that took hours to prepare—what difference does it make to our perceptions if we don’t receive the Likes as expected? Is the time we invest proportional to our level of disappointment?

I found myself checking to see what other content people had Liked.

That just made things worse. More confusing.

People Like a variety of things for a variety of reasons. What was happening to me? Was I getting too involved? Was I reading too much into things? Was I becoming paranoid?

The answer is yes and no—for there is a powerful force at work that Facebook exploits to the full.

Something happens to us when we see the number of Likes growing—something Shirley Li calls “that warm, albeit fleeting sense of pride” in her article How Numbers on Facebook Change Behavior.

I lived in Las Vegas for five years during the boom recovery years between the tech fallout and the housing market crash. Entering any casino, you are confronted with a refreshing blast of cool air—a welcome relief from the searing desert heat. And you also enter a hypnotic place, filled with flashing colored lights, friendly jingles and a cornucopia of eye candy.

Las Vegs Slot Machines. Credit Yamaguchi先生
Las Vegas Slot Machines. Credit Yamaguchi先生

And there people flock in their hundreds to worship at the altar of gaming technology … they enter the “machine zone”.

What is the machine zone? Alexis C. Madrigal, in his article The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook, describes it this way:

It’s a rhythm. It’s a response to a fine-tuned feedback loop. It’s a powerful space-time distortion. You hit a button. Something happens. You hit it again. Something similar, but not exactly the same happens. Maybe you win, maybe you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s the pleasure of the repeat, the security of the loop.

Natasha Dow Schüll, associate professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology uses the term “machine zone” to describe how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling mesmerizes players into a state in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. Her recent book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Princeton University Press 2012), draws on extended research among compulsive gamblers and the designers of the slot machines they play to explore the relationship between technology design and the experience of addiction. Schüll writes,

To put the zone into words, the gamblers I spoke with supplemented an exotic, nineteenth-century terminology of hypnosis and magnetism with twentieth-century references to television watching, computer processing, and vehicle driving.

So there it is. The connection.

The same force that drives people into the machine zone drives us to a feverish obsession with Likes.

But it’s not all about being addicted to Like. There is much to truly love about Facebook. So much potential yet to come.

Author and media theorist Steven Johnson says: “chance favors the connected mind”. Just as European coffeehouses were breeding grounds for the flowering of creativity and innovation during the Renaissance, so too is Facebook a place to share and build upon hunches, concepts, ideas … and help shape them into fully-fledged business propositions.

I used to think most good ideas came from geniuses working alone in workshops, basements, or garages, but Steven Johnson shows how that is largely myth and that most new ideas occur in networks of thinkers who are mulling over similar issues. If you want to be creative, be in a network.

A 2013 study by Avande revealed that despite efforts by leading vendors to promote the use of sophisticated enterprise social collaboration solutions, it turns out the dominant social collaboration tool inside big companies is plain old Facebook.

For all its addictive qualities as a social time killer, Facebook has a serious side. A side that can help lift the world into Renaissance 2.0.


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