Earlier this month, I noticed something strange with my teen cousin. He was scrolling through his phone, repeatedly tapping it like an automated machine. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that he was, per usual, on Instagram. More specifically, he was liking every single picture in his feed. It didn’t matter what it was — a photo posted by a friend or a picture of sneakers from a blog he follows — it received a heart.
Because I rarely like anything on my feed — and almost never like anything posted by a brand or influencer — I had to know why he was so liberal with his praise. He could only offer a shrug in return, though. “I don’t know man, it’s just what you do,” he told me.
As we talked more, I realized there was a gulf between how both of us defined what a “like” is and who should receive them. For me, they’re given largely to my close friends for creating something like a fancy pasta dish or accomplishing a major milestone in their life (e.g., getting married or having a baby). For my 18-year-old cousin, on the other hand, likes are given to anything and everything — even the most mundane photos of buildings and sunsets. He told me that his friends do the same thing, too. If anything, he insisted, I was the weird one for scrolling through Instagram and not liking anything.
The thing is, he might be right. As I tried to find out whether I was too old to be online, I found that a lot of people — regardless of their age — like everything in their feeds. “I scroll through all my social media feeds and like pretty much everything,” says 27-year-old Megan Campbell. “I’m not sure why, it’s just a habit. If I have 10 minutes when I’m on the train or the bus, I’ll just go on Instagram and like a whole row of photos, without really thinking about it.”
Ben Sweeney, 30, has a similar habit. “I use Twitter most of the time, so I like most things on there, but there are different reasons why I like them. With a mate’s post, I’ll like it just because they’re a mate. Other times, I’ll like something from a news channel if it’s something I want to read after, or if there’s some news about Arsenal F.C. I’ll like that because I’m a supporter, and that’s what you do. Sometimes I just like things without realizing it. It’s just a habit, something you do when you’re on your phone and you’re bored.”
Our understanding of what a like actually means stems from Facebook. In 2009, five years after the platform launched, Facebook introduced the function (which, supposedly, Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a fan of). It was designed to help users interact with their friends’ status updates, comments, photos and videos — as well as providing data for advertisers. Ever since, one of the most common questions about social media surrounds the value of a like.
Most articles about its psychology suggest that the action solicits a small chemical reaction in the brain known as the “dopamine rush.” As such, a 2016 study in the Association for Psychological Science argued that receiving a large number of likes activates the same brain circuits as eating chocolate or winning money. “There’s a very simple reason a like on social media feels so good. It gives us a high — a real, physiological high — and it’s fundamentally the reason we keep going back to it,” writes Cat Harvey-Jenner in Cosmopolitan. “It’s a reward cycle, you get a squirt of dopamine every time you get a like or a positive response on social media.”
Meanwhile, for brands, likes are a highly sought-after metric. They tend to believe that people “who socially endorse a brand by, for example, liking [them] on Facebook will spend more money than they otherwise would, and their endorsements will cause their friends (and friends of friends) to shop — creating a cascade of new business,” according to the Harvard Business Review.
It turns out, though, that this assumption is wrong. While lots of people might follow a brand and passively enjoy its social content, HBR found little evidence to suggest that liking a post led to people purchasing products. “It’s not that the like is useless. It’s that it can mean a lot of different things,” says The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz, an admitted “over-liker” herself. To Lorenz, likes aren’t just about expressing interest in a brand or even an individual, they’re now a part of the internet’s own language, especially among teens. “Likes are a loose way of confirming a friendship with someone or expressing support for them,” she explains. “It’s one reason why lots of teens like everything their friends or even people in their social circles post, even if they don’t have any real opinions about them. It’s a way of just acknowledging them.”
She adds that in some cases, not liking something can be met harshly IRL. “If someone hasn’t liked an Instagram post of someone in their social circle, people could think that it’s something personal. Not giving their photo a like can be read as a sign that there’s something wrong or that they have a personal problem with one or more people in the group.” In this way, Lorenz believes that the like is much more akin to a “read receipt” than an endorsement.
Even if the like has multiple meanings, some of which might be implicit and difficult to translate, its function still affects (sans nuance) the algorithms in which social media platforms operate. In fact, a Facebook like is so powerful in determining which content people see that some have argued it swung the 2016 election for Donald Trump and contributed to Britain voting to leave the European Union by promoting content — including fake news from conspiracy-laden websites — to the top of people’s feeds. Along those lines, despite Facebook saying it’s changing its algorithm to stop extreme groups from operating on the platform, likes may still be contributing to the proliferation of anti-vaxx communities.
Still, Nancy Elgadi, head of social media at Right Angles, a London-based PR agency, says the large companies she’s worked for are definitely questioning the power of a like (for business purposes at least). “Other than attention, there’s not much else to likes. None of the [engagement] is real. There are other metrics that I think are better ways of telling if an engagement is meaningful, i.e., if someone is going to buy a product or associate with the brand,” she tells me. “Sometimes that’s a share into their networks, or commenting on a post.”
“If you think about what a like actually is,” she continues, “it’s about acknowledgement. You’re just confirming that something exists and you’ve seen it. Maybe that you agree with it, or you passively like it. But you don’t have to put a lot of effort into clicking one button, in the way that you have to craft a written message if you want to engage with a particular piece of online content.”
That said, quitting likes — or becoming not-so-likeable — is proving harder than not for brands. “Part of it is that likes were such an important part of early social media platforms. So many brands and companies still think that getting lots of likes on a post is a good performance indicator. They look at the raw numbers and think that a lot of likes is better than one meaningful comment, even if the latter results in an actual sale,” she says.
Of course, they might not have the option much longer. Last year, in the midst of its own ideological crisis as to whether Twitter was facilitating extremist groups, the company’s CEO Jack Dorsey stated that he was considering getting rid of the like function, following a prior statement that the like wasn’t facilitating “meaningful communication.” And some developers, such as Adam Powers, have created software a la Neutralike, which strips the like function out of your Facebook experience completely. Speaking to The Atlantic, Powers said that “the primary intent is that I can no longer just click ‘like’ to show my approval for something. I have to comment, even if it’s a one-word response or a ‘me too.’ And I like it like that.”
When I present this option to my cousin, he throws up his hands. “It doesn’t really bother me or my friends,” he responds. “We don’t really put a lot of thought into why you would or wouldn’t like something — you just do it. Just like you say ‘lol’ at something, even if it’s not actually that funny.”
But I couldn’t let it go. In some ways, I posited to my cousin, littering his feed with likes could actually be interpreted as a form of resistance. After all, liking everything messes up the algorithm that was providing so much of his personal information to Big Social and the advertisers it rakes in the cash from. Could it be then that instead of being redundant in its effectiveness, the like was the key to reclaiming the internet?
“You’re reading way too much into this,” my cousin said, as he pulled out his phone and started tapping his thumb through his Instagram feed once more.