Click 'Like' if You Like 'Like'

Wednesday May 4th 2011 by Mike Elgan
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Having already conquered the Web, what will Facebook’s monster ‘Like’ button turn into in the coming year?

Sometimes, you’ve got to stop and smell the money.

It was only a year ago that Facebook introduces its "Like" program -- a "Like" button Web site publishers could add to their sites. A "Like" button sounds harmless enough, but for Facebook it’s a Golden Goose that has just begun laying eggs.

When you click "Like" on a Web page you're visiting, the number of "Likes" on the count for that page (but not the whole site) increases by one. More important, Facebook auto-posts that item on your Facebook Wall, under the label "(YOUR NAME) likes a link."

Your Facebook friends can see the item on your Wall, and can themselves "Like" it on Facebook or, after clicking on the link, "Like" it on the page just like you did. All this liking enables the page to spread virally via Facebook.

Danny Sullivan, the influential editor-in-chief of a site called Search Engine Land, estimates that there are about 2.5 million sites now sporting "Like" buttons. And the number is growing fast -- Facebook says more than 10,000 "Like" buttons are added on the Internet every day.

A new study published this week by CityGrid Media and conducted by Harris Interactive concluded that the Facebook "Like" button has surpassed the writing of a review for how consumers prefer to show support for local businesses.

While only 13 percent of users ever write reviews, some 20 percent use "Like." That soars to 40 percent of people under 35 and nearly 50 percent in the ages between 18 and 24.

Facebook also offers "Like Pages" -- commonly called fan pages, for people to promote themselves or their brands. "Like Pages" are similar to Facebook profiles, but can support an unlimited number of "Friends." Posts on "Like Pages" are shared on the Walls of everyone who has ever clicked the "Like" button at the top of the page.

The "Like" concept is more than just a user convenience. It integrates Facebook into the fabric of the Internet, makes Facebook membership more valuable. But most of all, it blurs the line between advertising and other content, leveraging the power of attention in the service of Facebook-based marketing.

And it also raises the question: When a user "Likes" an ad, does the resulting Facebook post itself constitute an ad?

Facebook's "Like" button started appearing in banner ads in October. But just this week, a new class-action lawsuit alleges that Facebook's "Like" feature on advertising uses minors in those ads without permission from parents.

When you see a Facebook "social ad," the names and profile pictures of your friends who clicked "Like" appear with the ad. It's Facebook's way of using peer pressure to make advertising more noticeable and persuasive.

The lawsuit says that when the names and faces of minors appear alongside these ads, it's equivalent to using them in print advertising without the permission of their parents, which is illegal.

But is it? It's an interesting question, and one that eludes an easy answer. In the meantime, "social ads" are a powerful advantage for Facebook that no other ad network can replicate.

The downside of "Like" buttons is perhaps that it accelerates the general dumbing-down and ad-centricity of the Internet. You can almost hear the world's attention span getting shorter and our actions being monetized.

A decade ago, average users might write 3,000-word "reviews" on Amazon.com, and lengthy praise of products, movies, services -- whatever. A couple of years ago, many people might click stars (one to five) on Google Maps, Netflix, Yelp and even write a couple of sentences on their judgment of businesses, pages or blog posts.

Now, people can barely be bothered to click "Like."

We don't have time to appreciate things. There is no nuance or complexity in our praise. It's thumbs up or nothing. Can't we at least have a "Don't Like" button?

No, we can't. The reason is that "Don't Like" has no value in the selling of advertising.

As "Like" replaces other expressions of opinion. You can either endorse advertised products and other content, or shut the hell up. The whole spectrum of opinion below "Like" is lumped together: "Hate," "Don't Care" and everything in between is treated the same -- with invisibility and irrelevance.

The one-dimensionality of "Like" creates awkwardness, too, as people sometimes use the button to express one feeling, but end up expressing another. For example, let's say the New York Times writes an obituary about some famous person. I might click "Like" as a way to honor the person's life and spread the word about his passing. But on my Facebook Wall, it will say: "Joe Schmo Is Dead (Mike Elgan Likes this)".

Facebook has more recently rolled out a "Send" button program, which works like other send buttons online -- except it delivers the e-mail to recipients' Facebook Messages inbox -- and also contributes to the tally of "Likes" for that item. So it's really just a "Like" button that delivers. It sucks content from outside the Facebook garden walls to inside, but in two ways instead of one.

The "Like" concept, which began only a year ago as a nice idea, is now growing into the Mother of All Marketing Programs, enabling Facebook to reach out across the Internet and suck people back into Facebook. And all this happened in just one year. What will this monster turn into in the coming year?

ALSO SEE: Tech Comics: "Facebook Friends"

AND: Tech Comics: "Meeting a Facebook Friend"

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