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How Facebook’s ‘like’ button hijacked our attention and broke the 2010s

What began as a simple way to show appreciation online has become the social currency of the decade, and there may be no going back.

How Facebook’s ‘like’ button hijacked our attention and broke the 2010s

The change was subtle but consequential. It came with advance notice from Facebook in March 2010, when the company quietly warned its advertisers that it would be updating the language on one of its most prominent features. If you were a brand, a business, a public figure, or anyone else who operated a Facebook page, you would no longer have “fans,” technically speaking. Instead, the little button that invited people to become a fan of your page would now use a cooler, simpler term: “like.”

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For Facebook users already accustomed to frequent and dizzying feature updates, it was a confounding alteration. “So what do we call Facebook fans now? Likers?” puzzled one blogger.

But this semantic shift was not another example of Facebook moving fast and breaking things. It was part of a deliberate strategy to make its like button—released just 13 months earlier—the focal point of Facebook’s efforts to rewire the web itself. The next step came a month later, when Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of a social plugin that would allow anyone to add like buttons to their own websites. The goal? To put Facebook’s 400 million users at the center of our collective online experiences, with the like button as the glue holding it all together.

It’s worth examining the immense cultural and technological sea changes wrought by this devilish little invention.

The like button quickly became a routine fixture on blogs, news websites, and business pages across the web, anointing a new stage in the history of the internet. As the 2010s come to a close this month, it’s worth examining the immense cultural and technological sea changes wrought by this devilish little invention. Today, likes on Facebook and other social networks live at the center of clout and commerce. They tell us what to pay attention to, where to spend our money, and who to publicly shame. They also amplify outrage, drown out dissent, and corrode healthy discourse—and they’ve become influential to the point where it’s almost impossible to imagine the online world without them. Would the Russians, without the targeting capabilities enabled by likes, still have been able to hack our presidential election in 2016? Would altered videos and disinformation continue to travel online with the terrifying speed they do today? Would 259 people have died while trying to take the perfect selfie?

It’s unlikely Facebook was asking any of those questions when it released the social plugin for its like button in 2010. Back then, it was still a young company in search of a viable business model. If the aughts had been about the race to build social networks to scale—a knock-down-drag-out fight for dominance between Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter—then the 2010s would be about figuring out how to monetize these new digital empires.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a keynote address during the Facebook f8 conference on September 22, 2011 [Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
The like button, a ridiculously simple yet undeniably inventive way to collect information about people’s interests, promised to be the bold new form of micro-attention capture that the emerging social web was demanding. For Facebook, which was still two years away from its IPO, like buttons were also a signal to investors that its then-stated mission to “make the world more open and connected” could translate into a very profitable form of surveillance capitalism.

“Scattered around the web, [Like buttons] allowed Facebook to follow users wherever they wandered online, sending messages back to the mother ship (‘She’s looking for cruises’),” Columbia University professor Tim Wu points out in his book The Attention Merchants. “That would allow, for example, the Carnival Cruise Line to hit the user with cruise ads the moment they returned to Facebook.”

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What exists is an exceptionally sophisticated system for tracking users, profiling their behavior, and targeting ads.”

Georg Petschnigg

But if like buttons were a godsend for advertisers, a lifeline for businesses, and a future cash cow for Facebook, there was one group for whom the benefits were less apparent—the users themselves, who now number in the billions.

“It’s unclear what consumers received in exchange for liking something,” says Georg Petschnigg, a tech industry veteran and chief innovation officer at WeTransfer. “There is no beautiful gallery, archive, or display case of all the things you liked. What exists is an exceptionally sophisticated system for tracking users, profiling their behavior, and targeting ads.”

How it all started

Facebook may be most associated with the like button, but some version of the feature has been around since at least the early 2000s. StumbleUpon, an early discovery website, had a thumbs-up mechanism similar to what we think of today as likes. Video-sharing website Vimeo was even using the term “like” as far back in 2005. And FriendFeed, a now-defunct social platform, launched its own like button in late 2007. (FriendFeed was acquired by Facebook in 2009 and shut down about six years later.)

But it was through a long-stalled effort from within Facebook that the like button would eventually realize its full potential. It almost didn’t happen: The original project, codenamed “Props,” began in 2007 as a nebulous idea to create a product that would help users more easily express their appreciation for content in Facebook’s newsfeed, which back then was still a relatively new feature. As the Ringer reported in 2017, one Facebook employee at the time, Leah Pearlman, came up with the idea for a button that would help “consolidate” all the newsfeed comments that were basically some variant of people saying they liked something. If all those people who were taking the time to post comments like “great,” “love it,” or “terrific” could do so with one click, the thinking went, life on Facebook would be a lot simpler.

Today, the idea of a social network without some form of like-like feature seems almost unthinkable.

Pearlman’s idea eventually took the form of something called the “Awesome” button. Early visual concepts included a plus sign and a star icon, in addition to the now-ubiquitous thumbs-up icon. But as Facebook VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth recounted in a Quora post a while back, Mark Zuckerberg did not like the project and vetoed it on multiple occasions. One concern, Bosworth writes, was that the button would dissuade people from commenting on posts and therefore hurt engagement. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true. Early tests showed the like button tended to help increase comments because Facebook’s newsfeed treated likes “as a signal for distribution,” as Bosworth put it.

With the promise of likes as a booster rocket for Facebook posts, there was no going back. After Facebook announced the feature on February 9, 2009, the concept spread aggressively to other social networks. YouTube added a thumbs-up button in 2010, while LinkedIn opted for a share button that same year. Google’s ill-fated Google+ began adding plus-one buttons, too. By the end of 2015, even Twitter had given in, changing its star icon to a heart and surrendering to the terminology of the era. “[W]e’ll be calling them likes,” the company wrote in a blog post.

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Today, the idea of a social network without some form of like-like feature seems almost unthinkable. Perhaps nowhere is this tyranny of gratitude more noticeable than on Instagram, with its ubiquitous, irresistibly plump hearts. Back in 2011, a year before it was scooped up by Facebook for $1 billion, the already hugely popular smartphone app introduced a feature update that let people like photos simply by double tapping them. This simple development, still a core function of the platform today, may have done more to gamify everyday social interactions than any other feature in history. You scroll. You tap. You spread the love. You keep scrolling.

The like is a simple and flexible social gesture that has become more durable with time.”

Julian Gutman

I asked Julian Gutman, a product lead at Instagram who works on the network’s feed, what accounts for the feature’s enduring popularity after all these years. In an email, he said likes are the digital equivalent of a universal gesture of goodwill: think waving at your friend on the street or clapping for a performer in a concert hall. “Likes are a key way for people to connect with friends and show appreciation for creators,” Gutman says. “An emoji could be misinterpreted, and a comment requires that you have something more to say, but the like is a simple and flexible social gesture that has become more durable with time.”

The kids are not alright

But just because something is durable doesn’t mean it’s good for us. No sooner did the almighty like take hold as a key function of online interactions than its critics began to raise concerns about its real-world effects—particularly its effects on young people. As far back as 2010, parents were already mounting legal challenges to the like economy, including one lawsuit against Facebook in which lawyers argued that children shouldn’t be allowed to like Facebook ads without parental consent.

A decade later, child development experts tend to worry about more psychological matters. With likes now an established proxy for social influence, an entire generation of social media users has been trained to measure their self-worth in terms of how many they receive. With almost three-quarters of teens using Instagram, the competition to collect likes is fierce.

“It can get really unhealthy,” says Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, founder of Children and Screens, a nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness about the effects of mobile devices on developing minds. “Kids can be really anxious about whether or not their friends are going to like a post, or how they look in a post . . . They’re looking for positive feedback.”

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Critics of likes believe it’s no coincidence that the rise of social media and iPhones has coincided with troubling increases in teen depression and suicide. And while there is some controversy around applying the word “addiction” to smartphone use, few would argue that the dopamine-fueled rush we get from whipping out our phones to check how a post is performing isn’t real. Still, more research needs to be done about the extent to which this reward-system feedback loop is, or is not, rewiring our brains.

The like button is one of the most sinister pieces of design . . . It’s hard not to like what you like.”

Georg Petschnigg

“The directionality in terms of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide, is not completely clear, but we do have to be concerned about these issues,” says Hurst-Della Pietra.

Petschnigg, meanwhile, is less kind. “The like button is one of the most sinister pieces of design,” he says. “On the surface, it is so approachable, easy to use, and taps into our better nature of wanting to show appreciation. It’s hard not to like what you like! And while I believe the creators had good intentions, in the context of the [Facebook] business model, a different cause took hold.”

That’s why it would be so difficult to untangle likes from social media as we know it today. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have built enormous businesses on their ability to run highly targeted advertising. They make money by tracking your whereabouts, your interests, your habits, and using that information to sell ads. (Facebook sold more than $17 billion in ads in the last quarter alone.) Likes underpin the entire system, each one a tiny beacon that helps social media companies build a valuable profile of you as a consumer. To dismantle that would be to thwart the very profit motive that makes social media run in the first place.

Life after likes?

With likes taking root at the beginning of the decade and finding the peak of their influence in the middle of it, it’s somewhat poetic that 2019 was the year we finally started having real conversations about how to minimize some of the damage they’ve caused. Just this month, for instance, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey announced that the site is funding a team of researchers in the hopes of developing a more “decentralized standard” for social media, in part because likes appeal to our basest instincts. “Existing social media incentives frequently lead to attention being focused on content and conversation that sparks controversy and outrage, rather than conversation which informs and promotes health,” Dorsey tweeted.

More notably, both Instagram and Facebook have begun testing ways to hide public like counts from users. In Instagram’s case, the test recently expanded to users worldwide. It wouldn’t do away with likes completely—users would still see their own likes—but it would place a lot less emphasis on them. One theory is that it could also increase engagement, at least for more reserved users who hate the feeling of dread that comes with posting content that falls flat.

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We are testing this because we want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves.”

Julian Gutman

“We are testing this because we want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” says Gutman, the Instagram product lead. “This includes helping people to focus on the photos and videos they share, not how many likes they get. While the feedback from early testing has been positive, this is a fundamental change to Instagram, and so we’re continuing our test and research to learn more from our global community.”

Back at Children and Screens, Hurst-Della Pietra is not convinced. “It absolutely doesn’t go far enough,” she says of Instagram’s test. “It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still that sense of self-comparison and a need for validation.” She would like to see Instagram remove likes altogether.

It’s a nice dream, but it will probably remain just that: Gutman says Instagram is “certainly not considering removing likes.” Facebook isn’t planning to willingly disrupt its own targeting and tracking abilities to the point where they’re no longer economically viable.

At the same time, online platforms have a way of being disrupted. Just as it would have been hard to imagine 10 years ago how like-obsessed our world would be today, it’s equally difficult to picture what new form of social currency might materialize over the next decade. Will we be in a post-like world by 2029?

[Animation: courtesy of Facebook]
Amit Fulay, a product manager at Facebook who works on the newsfeed, thinks about this question a lot. He points out that likes as a feature have already moved beyond the simple thumbs-up icon to include Facebook reactions—the five emoticons that let people express various different emotions, which were rolled out globally in 2016.

“We’re constantly expanding the ways people can interact, making it richer, more personalized, but retaining the simplicity that we started with,” Fulay says. “We’re going to evolve and make sure we address all the expressions people have.”

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You get to build your identity on Facebook.”

Amit Fulay

More recently, Facebook has begun testing an avatars feature that takes reactions a step further, letting people customize their reactions with a virtual doppelgänger that they can build themselves. “Think of it as a way for people to create a persona that is playful, more personalized,” Fulay says. “You get to build your identity on Facebook.”

Avatars are already available in Australia and are expected to come to the United States and other countries early next year. Sure, there’s a whole Black Mirror episode that warns about what might happen if avatar-driven culture is taken too far, but it seems clear that Facebook is envisioning a world where the online identities we create look and behave more and more like us.

Where does that leave likes? It’s hard to picture likes, with all their power and influence, going away in the 2020s, or even into the 2030s. They may look a little different by then, but something tells me we’ll still be under their thumb.

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior staff news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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