We're All Likers Now: How Facebook's "Like" Is Just Awkward

Facebook this week is trying to round up the stragglers who have not connected their interests, activities and “Things I Like” section to live links or pages on or off the social networking site. The company’s approach is a bit heavy-handed, threatening users that the basic profile information they provided is about to disappear (“If you don’t link to any Pages, the following sections on your profile will be empty.” Duh-duh-duh.) That’s because users’ interests, activities and likes are now by default public (you can change that here).

But what keeps tripping me up is how awkward the phrase “Things I Like” — and really all the terminology around Facebook’s new practice of “liking” — is. I can appreciate that Facebook is trying to define a new relationship between users and web content, but so far, it doesn’t quite work. You no longer “fan” pages directly on Facebook or by using its buttons around the web, you “like” them — so instead of being “fans” we’re now, what, “likers”? Now President Barack Obama, instead of having 8,231,685 Facebook fans, has “8,231,685 people [who] like this.” Just flows off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Facebook added the “like” button last year as a simple thumbs-up for items in its news feed, giving users an easy way to tell each other they appreciated their updates without going to the trouble of writing out words. The feature’s precedent was found in FriendFeed, the social web aggregation service Facebook later bought.

But “like” has now become a central metaphor of the Facebook experience and its efforts to make the whole web social. The 50,000-plus sites that have already added Facebook social plugins enable Facebook users to like a certain item or article directly on their site, which can then create a group of all the people who clicked to “like” something, and send them bulletins on that topic. In an example given when Facebook launched the features, you could “like” a certain NFL draft pick on ESPN.com, and then ESPN could in real time place an item in your Facebook news feed once he was chosen. So in a way, “like” means “subscribe.” It’s a deceptively simple word for the connection Facebook wants to establish (and control) between users and publishers.

Facebook is taking steps to control the language for its notion of “liking.” In its current terms of service, it warns developers not to use the word “like” in their own applications to prevent confusion.

“You must not use terms for Facebook features and functionality
(e.g., fan, feed, status, tag, like) in the name of your application,
any corresponding URL, or your application’s features and
functionality, if such use could confuse users into thinking that the
reference is to Facebook features or functionality of the same name.”

Meanwhile, users who appreciate symmetry say they want a “dislike” button. After all, if you can give kudos for the good in your friends’ lives, shouldn’t you be able to express sympathy for the bad? There’s a Firefox add-on that adds a dislike button to every item on Facebook (if your friends don’t have it installed, they see a comment that says “dislike” instead).

The inappropriateness of “liking” came to a head when Facebook introduced its social plugins last month. Clearly some sites are not going to put up with asking users to “like” things that are bad or tragic; there’s not *that* much schadenfreude in the world. So Facebook added a second vocabulary option for those who need an alternative: “recommend.” So for instance, this morning, you can click on a button to “recommend” the CNN.com story “At least 27 dead as storms pound Southeast,” which seems a lot more appropriate than “liking” it. “Recommend” is not the opposite of “like” — you’re just saying a story is worth someone’s time. The two choices don’t seem particularly parallel — maybe Facebook should just allow developers to use a verb of their choice to express their users’ relationship to content. But that could be a throwback to the silly days of poking, pinching and throwing sheep at our Facebook friends.

With a little time, maybe “Things I Like,” “X People Like This,” and “liking” will become normal; Facebook certainly has enough reach to make it so. But for now, I just don’t like it.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.

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