What if We Got Rid of Likes?

Email a Friend

Writing in New York, Kevin Roose has a nice piece about Whisper, a new app which is basically Post Secret if Post Secret was built like Twitter.

It allows people to post anonymous Whispers (photos with a line or two of text overlaid on them, in the style of a Reddit image macro) which can then be "hearted" or replied to by other users. Users can view popular Whispers, Whispers with a common keyword, or Whispers posted from a nearby location.

Roose did an experiment. 

I posted two Whispers – one a real secret from my life, and the other a made-up concoction, designed to get as large a response as possible. It read, "My wife wants me to get a job. She doesn't know I'm a Bitcoin millionaire."  I posted both and waited. Several minutes later, the first (real) submission hadn't gotten any hearts or replies, while the second (fake) submission was accumulating them like mad.

This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Whisper isn’t a news service. It’s a place for people to post and read confessions. No one’s particularly harmed if some of those confessions are lies. 

But it also occurred to me that, if you wanted people to have less of an incentive to lie, one thing you could try would be to strip Hearts out of Whisper. After all, If I’m telling a true secret on Whisper, I probably get a feeling of therapeutic excitement just by publishing it, regardless of how many Hearts it earns me. I can't prove this, but I think I’d care more about Hearts if I were lying, because the fun of manufacturing a hoax would be to manipulate the largest audience I could find.  

There’s a million reasons why no social media platform wants to get rid of whatever version of Like it has. At its most basic, getting a Like gives you a tiny dopamine hit. It makes you want to post again. And as you notice which of your posts get more Likes, you start to write more posts like those. Which means you’re focus-grouping your dog pictures to make them grabbier. So that your friends enjoy it more. So that they stay on the site longer. So they, in turn, create more posts. And on and on. 

As a human though, this is kind of crappy. It’s not all that fun to have your most mundane public communications get network notes from your friends. Or rather, it’s fun in the moment, and wearying in the long run. Part of me yearns for a place where I can publicly talk to the people I know without being graded.

Of course, a Like-less world wouldn’t end the Hoax Era we seem stuck in. Viral websites like Buzzfeed or Upworthy want you to share their stories more than they want you to Like them, and you can’t really kill sharing. Plus, even if Facebook refused to hand out numbers on how widely stories were being shared, publishers would know because they’d see those shares reflected in their web traffic. We’re good at finding our own metrics, particularly when there’s money in it. 

But if we, as individual humans, stopped getting such constant feedback, it might slightly de-incentive our desire to earn attention for attention’s sake, which is most of what can be so fundamentally exhausting about social media. 

If tomorrow, you stopped showing me my Favorites and Retweets and Karma and Follows and Shares and Hearts and Reblogs - I don’t know. I don’t think I’d miss them.