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The Power of "Like"

We like being liked… on Facebook.

Michael, a young high school student I am mentoring, celebrated his 17th birthday recently. I saw him a day or two later and wished him a belated congratulations and made arrangements to take him out to dinner to celebrate. I asked him how his birthday was, and he grabbed his smartphone and excitedly showed me a long string of Facebook posts on his wall.

As I was reading them, he said, “Did you see that I got 129 ‘likes’? That’s the most ever! Wow! What a birthday!”

When I mentioned that everyone was alerted that it was his birthday on the right side of their Facebook page, he shrugged and said, “I know that, but it still feels great!"

Michael is demonstrating an interesting phenomenon that appears to have amazingly strong power: the power of “Like” (with apologies to Huey Lewis). According to Facebook’s Help Center:

"Like" is a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook. You can like content that your friends post to give them feedback or like a Page that you want to connect with on Facebook.

Technically, the word “like” has several meanings. It can be used as a verb indicating that you are fond of another person and may or may not imply a romantic attraction, as in “I really like you,” or “Don’t tell her, but I like Maria.” Less commonly, it is used as a preposition that compares one person or thing to another: “He plays guitar like Jimi Hendrix.” Like is also used as a conjunction meaning as or as if, such as, “He looks like he is really enjoying himself.”

And, finally, the word "like" has taken on an entirely different meaning in slang ranging from 1980s Valley Girl speak popularized by Frank Zappa: “He is, like, so cute!” to a pragmatic marker on a level with “Uhm” and “OK” to allow for a pause in speech: “I, like, am feeling so lonely.” (If you have a chance, check out Christopher Higgins’ Vanity Fair article, "The Other L-Word.")

So, what is it about having so many people click “Like” on my friend’s birthday that made Michael feel so excited and so happy? Victor Pineiro of the website Big Spaceship sees it this way:

"Like" is a vast expanse, covering things I feel lukewarm about, things I'm fond of, and objects toward which I exhibit a smoldering passion. But give me a sunny day and some good music, and there are few things I don't like—which makes the button a notoriously easy impulse click.

From his excitement, it is clear that “Like” meant a lot more to Michael than just 127 impulse clicks by his Facebook friends. It meant much more. Although I am sure that he would not voice this aloud, it made Michael feel more than liked; it made him feel loved.

Based on Michael’s response (and that of so many others that we have studied), “Like” is an example of what I would call “virtual empathy.” We are all well aware of what it means to be empathic toward someone: having the ability to understand and share in another’s emotional state or context. How does this fit, however, when you try to do the same in a virtual environment, such as through e-mail or on Facebook?

How much does it matter that you are understanding and sharing someone’s emotional state when all you are able to do is to infer his or her emotional state from printed words on a screen? Is virtual empathy as good as real-world empathy in making us feel supported and cared for by our friends? And does it matter if those friends are our real (face-to-face) friends or simply people we know online or, for some reason, have added to our Facebook friends list?

In a recent study from my lab on the impact of technology and media use on psychological disorders (which formed the basis for my new book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us), we asked about the use of the “Like” button on Facebook. The results surprised me.

An amazing 52 percent of the teenage Facebook users of the iGeneration (born in the 1990s) clicked “Like” daily or even several times a day. The Net Generation young adults were a close second with 45 percent, followed closely by 32 percent of Gen Xers and 24 percent of Baby Boomers. It appears that Facebook users of all ages enjoy using the “Like” button, although it is more popular among younger users.

In an as-yet-unpublished study presented at the American Psychological Association convention, Alexander Spradlin, John Bunce, Dr. Mark Carrier, and I surveyed 1,390 adults about their media usage, their level of “real-world” empathy expressed face to face, their empathy expressed in any online modality, and their perceived social support. The results were interesting.

First, as you might guess, being better at dispensing real-world empathy makes you feel more supported by your real-world friends. However, does being better at dispensing virtual empathy? Is it the same? Not really. Real-world empathy is six times more important than virtual empathy in making someone feel supported.

Further, using a path analytic model, we were able to show two important results: (1) spending more time using social networks (read Facebook) and engaging in instant message chats predicted more ability to be virtually empathic; and (2) being better at dispensing virtual empathy was the best predictor of being able to express real-world empathy, followed by spending more time communicating face-to-face with others, less time using e-mail, and less time playing video games. You get the best empathy from your friends, who are actively doling it out online but are not big gamers or big emailers.

Other researchers, including Dr. Moira Burke, a research scientist at Facebook and a recent Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University working under Dr. Robert Kraut on the driving force behind the HomeNet Study, believe that the first real indication of the psychological impact of introducing technology into the home environment is to have differing opinions on the value of the “Like” icon. As quoted in an Atlantic Magazine article:

If you use Facebook to communicate directly with other individuals—by using the “Like” button, commenting on friends’ posts, and so on—it can increase your social capital. Personalized messages, or what Burke calls “composed communication,” are more satisfying than “one-click communication”—the lazy click of a like. “People who received composed communication became less lonely, while people who received one-click communication experienced no change in loneliness,” Burke tells me. “People whose friends write to them semi-publicly on Facebook experience decreases in loneliness,” Burke says.

The same idea has been echoed by Sherry Turkle, a professor of computer culture at MIT and the author of groundbreaking books, including Life on the Screen and The Second Self, who, in her newest book, Alone Together, said:

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time. The problem with digital intimacy is that it is ultimately incomplete: The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy. We don’t want to intrude on each other, so instead, we constantly intrude on each other, but not in ‘real-time.’

In an interesting New York Times article, Dr. Turkle talked about how "We are tempted to think that our little 'sips' of online connection add up to a big pile of real conversation." She goes on to say later in the article, “Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, 'I am thinking about you.' Or even for saying, 'I love you.' But connecting in sips doesn't work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.”

I agree with Dr. Turkle. All those little sips of connection are not the same as face-to-face communication. But if the younger generations of young adults, teens, and even preteens are sending and receiving thousands of monthly texts (the latest Nielsen figures place that number at around 3,700 texts per month for teenagers and about half that for preteens and young adults), spending hours per day on Facebook, as well as being active users of other social media, including Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, and anything else that shows up, they are certainly getting a whole lot of sips.

Granted, a single sip or two will not satisfy your “thirst” for connection, but just like water, many sips make up a whole glass, which may be satisfying depending on your needs. If you need empathy and kindness, you can find it on Facebook and other social media. It may not be as good as in real life, but it counts because it makes you feel better. And somehow, mysteriously, that innocuous button labeled “Like” seems to carry with it a solid feeling of caring and kindness from friends, be they offline ones or solely people you know online.

The next time you are alerted by Facebook that it is someone’s birthday, don’t just shrug and pass it by. Post a happy birthday message on their wall, and don’t forget to click “Like” as well. It does feel good, and that’s really what life is about, isn’t it? Having friends and knowing that they care and want the best for you.

The best birthdays may simply include a lot of bridging social capital of good wishes (and “Likes”) on Facebook followed up by gathering your all-important bonding social capital from your real-life friends in the real world. It’s all about feeling better and gathering those feelings wherever you can. They are real, and they are important, and just because it is only a “lazy click of like,” to you, it may feel like a full glass of water.


POSTSCRIPT: I am very happy with the success of my new book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

POSTSCRIPT 2: Today is my daughter's birthday, and I just spoke to her from Kiev, where she is ending a two-month, post-college graduation whirlwind tour of European hostels. I asked her how she felt on her birthday, and she was so excited to point out how "loved" she felt (her words) as she had gotten 156 birthday wishes (and counting) on Facebook. Another example of how good it can feel to get something reasonably small—and not face-to-face—and have it feel so big and so powerful and so good. And she acknowledged that she understood that every Facebook friend was alerted that today was her birthday. She said that it meant all the more to her that 156 of her 1,500 or so friends had taken the time to write a birthday message on her wall!

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