Social media sites are at war for your opinion. Why? Targeted advertising. The weapons in this war are the “share, "Like”, and “+1” buttons beside searches, video, news articles and blog posts.
They seem innocuous, but might these buttons affect the way you can express your opinion?
What do the buttons do?
The original, and still prevalent, form of these buttons allows users to share content, say a video or blog post, from one service to another. You can post a link to the original content and/or write any comment you like.
Most social media sites provide individual forms of their logos, and companies such as AddThis and ShareThis use their one small button to provide a link to buttons for hundreds of social media services. Addthis, for example, allows uses to share to more than 300 services.
More recent buttons do not directly share the content from one place to another. Rather Facebook’s “Like” and Google’s new “+1” buttons encourage you to express an opinion that appears to be an endorsement of the content.
The endorsement appears next to the content, but may also appear in your Facebook or Google+ news feed so that others can see what you (apparently) endorse.
Content services and advertisers are really interested in these endorsement buttons. Facebook has both forms of buttons (its Send button allows for sharing with comments), but it is the Like button that has proved popular for users and lucrative for corporations.
It is not surprising that Google’s response, the “+1”, follows the simple limited endorsement model (although a +1 click is used by Google in many complex ways behind the scenes).
The issue here is whether it matters that you write a comment versus simply click a button that apparently endorses content.
Communication technology researchers would argue that it does, because the design of the technology materially affects the way you can express your opinion.
In its basic form, the Facebook Like button only allows endorsement. That means that you can’t directly critique something as easily as you can endorse it, you have to actually type out your critique.
People can – and some do – but most simply won’t bother. So content gets visibly endorsed a lot more than it gets visibly critiqued.
Similarly, you can’t just “shrug”, although some people have jokingly suggested a “meh” button.
The links between technology, society, and language
One view of technology and society, Technological Determinism, would argue that this may lead to us becoming conditioned to narrow ways of assessing things.
This argument has echoes of Linguistic Relativity. The extreme (and disputed) version of linguisitic relativity, Whorfianism, proposes that different cultures think differently because their language is different.
This theory first came about when anthropological linguists noticed that members of different cultures referred to colours in different ways.
For example, on being shown three objects, a member of Culture One labels all three as “red” while a member of Culture Two labels them as “red”, “yellow”, and “orange”.
Culture Two may use that differentiation to make important cultural distinctions (economic, political, religious, etc.).
It would be argued that Culture One could not make such a distinction, and thus would have a very different experience of the world.
A more moderate version holds that there is the relationship between language and cognition is more complex and subtle.
This moderate version also accords with the counter argument to Technological Determinism, called Social Constructivism. Social Constructivism says that the relationship between technology and society is relative, and that people find ways around such constraints.
How might people find their way around the technological constraint of a button that appears to only endorse content? One answer lies in the property of language called “indexicality”, which refers to the way one word can be used to stand for many concepts or many varieties of one concept.
The word “that”, for example, can refer to lots of things, and we don’t get confused or claim that people are thinking differently because they use “that” to refer to a bus-stop today and a cake tomorrow.
The many faces of Liking
There is qualitative evidence that the Like button is used indexically. Despite its name, the Like button on Facebook is interestingly non-specific.
Most people use it to endorse content as something “good” – e.g. liking a wedding photograph.
But are all these endorsements equal? Mashable reported American rapper Lil Wayne asking his fans to help him beat Oreos to get the most “Likes” in 24 hours.
Even though this was proposed as a popularity contest, and so is in a sense comparable, can anyone like a rapper and a cookie in the same way?
But Liking gets even more complex. It can be used to endorse the stance that content proposes, even when the content itself is somehow bad or troubling.
These days, it’s becoming more common on Facebook to see Liking of expressions of sorrow for the death of a loved-one.
At first, Like seems out of place, but we can make sense of it as an endorsement of both the fact of and the format of the sentiment, not the death itself.
Liking is also used sarcastically, e.g. Liking that someone’s relationship came to an end because you didn’t approve of the pairing.
A more serious example occurred earlier this year.
The ambiguity problem
In response to people Liking criticism of the Queensland Police Service, the QPS tried to explain how to use the Like button:
“The ‘like’ button is used to show interest in a topic and to help alert other FB friends, or even to ensure you’re informed of updates.
"It does not literally mean that you like something, please refrain from continuing this debate.”
More than 1,200 Facebook users then Liked that comment. Were all those users endorsing the same concept, and how many were being sarcastic?
For all that indexicality seems to get around the constraint of the Like button’s apparently singular meaning, clearly it also raises the problems of ambiguity and multiple interpretations.
Service providers, advertisers, content creators etcetera can’t necessarily rely on Like always being used the same way, and this may cause difficulties.
The value of constraint
The apparent constraint of the Like button may be preferable to an open-ended alternative, as in the Bonds Baby Facebook competition debacle.
The clothing company runs an annual Bonds Baby Search competition for two babies to appear in an advertising campaign.
Drawing 52,000 entries via Facebook this year, Bonds thought they were on a winner until posters changed from writing endorsements to critiques about babies.
Had Bonds used only a constrained clickable assessment, such as Like, the damage would have been limited. They would not have prevented people writing critiques alongside Likes, nor prevented the assessments occurring privately, but they would have prevented the broadcasting of negative assessments.
If comments could have been switched off, critique could have been almost entirely constrained. That might have been good for all involved in that situation, but it might also lead to constraint of freedom of expression in other situations.
The future of opinion buttons
Like and +1 are here to stay. They are easy for people to use, even if they are an imperfect metric of true endorsement.
For social media services, corporations, and advertisers, the actual meaning of Like is probably less important than the sheer quantity.
The question is, might there be a space in the social media world for something in between simple endorsement button and an open field for assessment?
Social news services such as reddit, Slashdot and digg have long provided methods to vote content up and down, and often places for commentary, as long as you are a member.
The still under-wraps Percolate “frictionless blogging” service is going to try to go one step further. According to Mashable, Percolate will “allow you to tag a post as ‘interesting,’ ‘win,’ ‘awesome,’ ‘fail’, or make up a tag of your own, and add a comment in the process.”
Multiple assessment tags may sound like a fine idea from the users’ point of view (if they can be bothered using them), but they may struggle for acceptance by corporations and advertisers who would prefer to limit critique.
The social media war for your opinion, then, is also a war between institutional control of public assessment on the one hand, and personal freedom of expression on the other.
This is not a new war, but technology is accelerating the pace at which all players must adapt.