What Do You Mean… “Like”?Posted: November 16, 2012
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’.
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’?