The Like Button Ruined the Internet
How “engagement” made the web a less engaging place
By JAMES SOMERS
Mar 21 2017
Here’s a little parable. A friend of mine was so enamored of Google Reader that he built a clone when it died. It was just like the original, except that you could add pictures to your posts, and you could Like comments. The original Reader was dominated by conversation, much of it thoughtful and earnest. The clone was dominated by GIFs and people trying to be funny.
I actually built my own Google Reader clone. (That’s part of the reason this friend and I became friends—we both loved Reader that much.) But my version was more conservative: I never added any Like buttons, and I made it difficult to add pictures to comments. In fact, it’s so hard that I don’t think there has ever been a GIF on the site.
I thought about building new social features into my clone until I heard my friend’s story. The first rule of social software design is that more engagement is better, and that the way you get engagement is by adding stuff like Like buttons and notifications. But the last thing I wanted was to somehow hurt the conversation that was happening, because the conversation was the whole reason for the thing.
Google Reader was engaging, but it had few of the features we associate with engagement. It did a bad job of giving you feedback. You could, eventually, Like articles that people shared, but the Likes went into an abyss; if you wanted to see new Likes come in, you had to scroll back through your share history, keeping track in your head of how many Likes each share had the last time you looked. The way you found out about new comments was similar: You navigated to reader.google.com and clicked the “Comments” link; the comments page was poorly designed and it was hard to know exactly how many new comments there had been. When you posted a comment it was never clear that anyone liked it, let alone that they read it.
When you are writing in the absence of feedback you have to rely on your own judgment. You want to please your audience, of course. But to do that you have to imagine what your audience will like, and since that’s hard, you end up leaning on what you like.
Once other people start telling you what they like via Like buttons, you inevitably start hewing to their idea of what’s good. And since “people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests,” the stuff you publish will start looking a lot like the stuff that everybody else publishes, because everybody sort of likes the same thing and everybody is fishing for Likes.
What I liked about Reader was that not knowing what people liked gave you a peculiar kind of freedom. Maybe it’s better described as plausible deniability: You couldn’t be sure that your friends didn’t like your latest post, so your next post wasn’t constrained by what had previously done well or poorly in terms of a metric like Likes or Views. Your only guide was taste and a rather coarse model of your audience.
Newspapers and magazines used to have a rather coarse model of their audience. It used to be that they couldn’t be sure how many people read each of their articles; they couldn’t see on a dashboard how much social traction one piece got as against the others. They were more free to experiment, because it was never clear ex-antewhat kind of article was likely to fail. This could, of course, lead to deeply indulgent work that no one would read; but it could also lead to unexpected magic.
Is it any coincidence that the race to the bottom in media—toward clickbait headlines, toward the vulgar and prurient and dumb, toward provocative but often exaggerated takes—has accelerated in lock-step with the development of new technologies for measuring engagement?