What Do You Mean… “Like”?

I was alerted to a strange game the other day. Go to Mitt Romney’s Facebook page, note the number of ‘likes’ and then come back later to see if the number had gone up or down. As it turns out, the number of Facebookers who ‘like’ the former Presidential Candidate’s Facebook page is dropping at a noticeable but steady rate. My estimates are, if this drop is maintained and it is linear, it will be about 1666 days until there are zero people liking the page. (Estimates vary, but the current rate of loss is somewhere around 11 likes a minute. You can watch it here in real time.) I mention this not to add to Mr Romney’s woes, because he is already understandably not happy that he lost the election, although you may disagree with the reasoning in the linked article. I mention this because it identifies how nebulous our association is with the term and the concept of ‘like’.

If this is your closest friend, you might need to catch up on this thing that we call ‘Facebook’.

For those who have recently returned from 7 years of bonding with a volleyball in the Pacific, Facebook does not allow you to ‘dislike’ things, it only allows you to comment or hit the ‘like’ button (or hide the comment or post but that’s a separate thought). What does it mean then to not click the ‘like’ button or to comment? Thank you, Facebook, for presenting us with yet another false dichotomy and for giving us such a large example on Mr Romney’s page. Before the election, millions of people liked Mr Romney’s page which, one can only imaging, meant that they were showing him support and saying “Go, Mitt!” Now that, in a completely different way, the message “Go, Mitt” has been communicated, it appears that, at a time when an unsuccessful candidate would need the most support, the followers are leaving. Now, this is important because, as I understand it, to stop liking something you have to take the active step of clicking on something – it doesn’t just expire in a short timeframe. People are actively choosing to remove their liking of Mr Romney’s page.


Well, there’s a lot of speculation about this, including the notion that some of the initial surge of followers came from buying friends by bringing in other accounts that are used by non-people but this still doesn’t explain where the unlikes are coming from because, after all, a Justin Bieber Slashfic Spambot is nothing if not loyal in its mechanically allocated trust. What is probably happening here is that the social media front ends were being used explicitly as part of a campaign to see Mr Romney elected President and, understandably, the accounts are now seeing much less use and, fickle as the real Internet is, you’re only as good as your last post or as hot as your posting frequency. The staffer or group of staffers that were paid to do this have now lost their jobs and the account is heading towards the account graveyard. (The saddest thing about any competition like this is that someone, somewhere, who has been doing a good job may still lose their job because the public didn’t support their candidate. I try to remember that before I overly celebrate either victory or defeat, although I don’t always succeed.)

What concerns me are the people who liked this Facebook page, legitimately and as real people, and have now turned around and deliked it, because this can easily be seen as a punitive action. It has no real impact on Mr Romney in any sense but it does make him look increasingly unpopular and, really, it achieves absolutely nothing. What does ‘like’ mean in this context? I support you until you fail me? I support you because you might be President and I have some strange mental model that your Secretary of State will be picked randomly from your Facebook followers?

To me, honestly, a lot of this looks like spite. After all, what does it hurt to remain a liker of a dead page? It doesn’t, unless your aim is to send a message. However, I think that Mr Romney probably already knows that he didn’t get elected to the highest office his country can offer – but I’m sure that when he becomes aware of all of the people fleeing his page, it will really neatly reinforce how he could have improved his campaign.

Oh, wait, that’s my point! The vocabulary of like/delike (recall that there is no dislike option) is fundamentally useless because of its confused binary nature. Does no ‘like’ mean ‘dislike’,’meh’,’sort of like’,’maybe in a dark room’ or ‘I missed this’? Does ‘like’ mean ‘yay!’, ‘hugs!’, ‘i want to smell your hair’ or ‘*gritted teeth at your good fortune*’? Or does it just mean ‘like’? We have no idea unless someone comments and, given that we have the easy out of ‘like’, many people won’t comment because they have the deceptively communicative nature of the flawed channel of ‘like’!

Like most Universities, we have a survey that we run on students at the end of courses to find out how they felt about the course, what their experience was. Regrettably, a lot of the time, what you end up measuring was how much a student liked you. It’s on a 7 point Likert scale but, and many students don’t realise this, the middle point is not ‘non-committed to like/dislike’, it counts as ‘not like’. Hence if you get 7/7 from everyone for something and get one 4/7, you no longer have 100% broad agreement regarding that point. Because there is confusion about what this means (and there is a not applicable that is separate to the scale), students who don’t care about anything tend to write down the middle and end up counting as a vote against. Is this fair? Well, is that the question? Let me ask a different one – was it what the student intended? Maybe/maybe not. As it stands, the numbers themselves are not very much use as they tell you what people feel but not what they’re thinking. The comments that also come on the same form are far more informative than the numbers. Much as with Facebook, there is confusion over like/dislike, but the comments are always far more useful in making improvements and finding out what people really think.

I feel (to my own surprise) some empathy for Mr Romney at the moment because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day sending him a message that is utterly and totally confusing, as well as being fundamentally hypocritical. Ok, yes, he might not care to know what every American thought he got wrong, the Internet can be challenging that way, but ‘deliking’ him is not actually achieving anything except covering your tracks.

What did any of these people, who have now left, actually mean by ‘like’?

8 Comments on “What Do You Mean… “Like”?”

  1. Kriss says:

    I think this shows a lack of understanding about what clicking “Like” for a page does. The button would be better labeled “Subscribe.” If you “like” a candidate during a campaign, what you are doing is subscribing to their posts. “Unliking” the page doesn’t mean that you now dislike the candidate, and it is ridiculous to call it “punitative.” All that means is that you wish to unsubscribe from reading their posts now that the campaign is concluded, which is completely reasonable whether they won or not.

    As a side note, it is a poor idea to leave yourself subscribed (“liked”) to a large number of pages that you don’t actually keep track of, because those likes are indeed bought and sold by things you may not want to be associated with.

    Also, “likes” of pages are public, and many people generally prefer to keep politics out of their public profile. I do myself. I made an exception during a particularly close and important campaign this year (MA’s senator), but I will be removing that from my personal profile now that the race is done. We also removed our lawn sign and bumper stickers, which is a direct parallel. That in no way reflects any sudden rejection of the candidate I supported.


    • nickfalkner says:


      Yes, the like button in this context means subscribe but I suspect that this is not as well thought about as it could be. You are assuming that everyone has your view, which is based on a fairly advanced technical background, which is that ‘clicking like will add me to this feed as a de facto subscription mechanism’. The fact is that you pressed a button marked ‘like’ that, everywhere else, means ‘like’ except where it doesn’t. I’m pretty well convinced that a lot of people click like to say ‘I like this’ wherever it comes from and I’m also pretty sure that a number of them go “Whoah, it sends me stuff now? Cool!” without quite realising the connection.

      Facebook are causing confusion by making web-like namespace and layout structures and then overloading the like mechanism (which is already confusingly and deceptively dichotomous) to allow them to provide a semi-commercial service in the middle of the user experience.

      I’m going to write more about this service tomorrow but, honestly, I don’t think that the majority of Facebook users have as coherent a view of the service as you do, nor are they as efficient in their information hygiene after the fact.

      Thanks for the comment – a lot to think about,


  2. Ernesto León De la Rosa says:

    An by my “like” I mean that I found your analysis quite insightful, entertaining and very educational in the sense of understanding the somewhat unintended consequences and ramifications of having a [like] button but not a [dislike] alternative. It should also been added that users in various social media have been clamoring for a [dislike] since the beginning of [social media] time and still every new social hub still chooses to only give the option for positive feedback, be it [like] [+1] [favorite] etc. Even WordPress presents us with the same dichotomy, does it not?


    • nickfalkner says:

      Ah, but WordPress provides a different (in name and action) way to subscribe to posters that is outside of Like. But, yes, the Like itself in WP is equally ambiguous – it’s a widespread problem. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!


  3. Ernesto León De la Rosa says:

    Reblogged this on Memes:~Education and commented:
    Because New Literacies need to account for the unintended ramifications of the limited options that the current Web 2.0 model still offers.


  4. What Kriss said. That’s pretty much how I use “Like” for pages, as well. I “delike” them (I prefer “unlike”) when and if the relevance is no longer there or if they start to get annoying.

    For instance, November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). During the latter part of September and through October, November, and December, I “Like” their page. But after that, it just gets annoying to see the occasional post that is not relevant to my needs at the moment. So during the other months, I unlike the page. It doesn’t mean I no longer like them, it simply means I no longer want to see their updates.

    I periodically go through my likes and cull almost all of them, and then if the need returns, I may like them again in the future. I remember liking the FB page of my insurance company at one point, but I have since unliked them because it just got too annoying to “listen” to them prattle on about stuff that didn’t interest me.

    I have never looked at the Romney page, so I don’t know what they’re currently up to, but the election is done. If I HAD subscribed (to use the better word) to his page, I would be unsubscribing now, too. Likewise for Obama. I wonder if anyone has been watching HIS numbers?


    • nickfalkner says:

      Again, as I said to Kriss, I do not think that we are the majority users, given our extensive experience with on-line media and mechanism – how we use like and understand the difference between ‘like’ and ‘subscribe’ is deliberately obfuscated by FB through their mechanism. Your point about Obama is well made but, when I last looked, his page was gaining in likes. It was this, rather than Romney’s drop, that made me think about popularity of like versus intent to subscribe.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s