The Psychological Implications of the Facebook Like Button

“The Psychological Implications of the Facebook Like Button”
 A research paper by Emily Maye Sweer

In the sphere of modern day social media, we gather to collectively ‘like,’ ‘tweet,’ ‘snap’ and ‘post’ things that we can all relate to. While this collective coming-together of people from around the world suggests that there is a sense of solidarity online, there are also negative connotations involved that can affect one’s mental health in a plethora of ways. Rarely do we think about the psychological implications that a simple Facebook like button can have on us. Needless to say that with more than one billion active users, Facebook is dominating in the realm of social media, but dominating ‘what’ is the question. We tend to accept these norms as they are: you like my status, I like your status, and the cycle continues. In this paper, I aim to explore the Facebook like button in detail and integrate class readings and external sources to get a better picture of what something so small as a ‘thumbs up’ might do to our brains. I will pay particular attention to the articles by Sarah Banet-Weiser, Eric Shouse, Sarah Gram and Danah Boyd, as they piece together the roles of self-branding, visibility, affect, the selfie and networked publics. My argument is clear: while a simple ‘like’ on your post can give you some positive reinforcement, it is a short-term ego boost that goes away and can never fully validate your self-worth in the long-term.

In a recent post by CEO and co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg explains that “the Like button has been a part of Facebook for a long time. Billions of Likes are made every day, and Liking things is a simple way to express yourself” (Zuckerberg, Facebook post on October 8, 2015). With apologies to Mr. Zuckerberg, the implications of the like button seem to go beyond just a mode of expression. In addition, it is interesting how he capitalized the word ‘like’ in his sentences, as if ‘liking’ something on Facebook has a deeper and more dominant, hegemonic meaning. Notably, in one of the few peer-reviewed articles that I discovered online, Eranti and Lonkila state that there are three components to the like button: it is an object, it has an economic goal and a political aim (Eranti & Lonkila 2015). Immediately after reading this article, I thought about Sarah Banet-Weiser’s text “Branding the Post-Feminist Self” in which she writes that “the empowered consumer . . . is also a producer” thereby helping to make companies more profitable (Banet-Weiser 67). The like button as an object has a neutral aim: you click like and that’s it. Whereas, the like button as both an economic and political concept have a hidden motive; the companies want you to like their posts so that they can gain visibility and create an online reputation. Visibility, according to Danah Boyd, is one of the four accordances of social media, along with persistence, spreadability and searchability (Boyd 11). Building off of this, Banet-Weiser would suggest that the quantity of hits or likes does not mean one has more gained social value, it means one has become more visible and this, in itself, contributes to one’s self-branding (Banet-Weiser 68). While I think Banet-Weiser’s argument for visibility is a plausible one, the like button does more than make people visible online. In addition, the question of social value is an important one: does having more likes make us more ‘valuable’ as online participants? Visibility may be an important strategy for political and economic aims, but the real question lies with the reasoning behind why we post or like certain statuses above others. Here lies the psychology of the problem: why do we crave ‘likes’?

Consider the following scenario: you just took a selfie and you like the way you look, so you post it to Facebook. A few hours later, you receive approximately one hundred likes from your Facebook friends. You would probably feel ‘happy’ that so many people saw and liked your photo, thereby making you more visible, but also more ‘liked,’ right? This seems partially true. Nevertheless, while you may have achieved more visibility due to the number of likes, this contributes to a false sense of happiness, and arguably, a short-term one at that. Psychologists would explain that this ties in to our need to engage with and to seek out external gratification and validation. Walter Mischel, a famous developmental psychologist, and his colleagues, explain that delaying “immediate satisfaction for the sake of future consequences has long been considered an essential achievement of human development” (Mischel et al 978). I argue that this largely contributes to the fundamental flaw in the psychology of the Facebook like button. We live in an era where we want everything ‘now’: alcohol, sex, fun, happiness, etc. We want to be validated by others and we want it immediately, impulsively, thereby increasing our ‘need’ for external gratification and limiting our potential to delay gratification or simply to not seek it at all.

Arguably, our need for validation and gratification is a socially created concept that is not just present on social media, but also in real life. Danah Boyd, in her “Introduction” to It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, contends that humans have not changed as much as we think we have, even in our online bubble. She eloquently clarifies, “networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously the space constructed through networked technologies and the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology and practice” (Boyd 8). In this manner, Boyd would affirm that our need for validation probably started in our real life group dynamics and is now transferable online. This necessity for gratification, then, is a cycle that began in social circles, in-person throughout the ages, and over time, as social media became more accessible and participatory, the same structures from real life transferred over to social media. Let us explore an example of a high school clique system: the jocks, the nerds, the music geeks, the popular girls, the drama club, etc. In high school, students learn to associate their identities with the group(s) they fit into versus the groups they are not a part of. Therefore, students compare themselves to other students within different groups. This is an in-group/out-group strategy that stems from social identity theory; we associate with the people and things that are relevant to us and we compare these values to the ideals of other groups (Tajfel 77-81). While this is a simple, generalized example (that, of course, may not be true for everyone in high school), it shows that our brain has categorical processes in real life, and this translates into our online lives as well. Boyd would assert that our social comparisons to others remain the same online; just as the high school becomes a space for networked publics, social media becomes a new version of these networked publics. The like button, then, becomes a way for individuals to connect, but it has this comparative structure to it, just like we compare ourselves to others in real life. My argument here is that the networked public system on Facebook, especially, is amplified in a way that toys with our emotions and affect. Boyd would likely disagree and state that there is no difference for our online experience, but I maintain that the like button brings about a certain intensity that may not be identical to what happens in our daily lives.

This ties into the next section of this paper: how do our emotions play into the cycle of the like button? So far, I have discussed that the like button is a positively reinforcing object and contributes to our need for instant gratification and to our categorical comparisons of one another. Now, I will consider how the like button fits in to Eric Shouse’s definition of affect. Shouse defines affect as “a non-conscious experience of intensity . . . that cannot be fully realized in language” (Shouse 1). Think of it this way: when you receive a like on your post, you get a certain sensation that cannot be described in words, and this varies in intensity for different people. For example, in my experience, when I receive a like, I feel as if someone has seen, accepted and validated my post and has acknowledged me as a person and as a participant of social media. As an already sensitive person, I might feel more of an intense reaction if I do not get enough likes or if I see that someone else has posted something and has received more likes than me. Logically, these thoughts are maladaptive and contribute to a thought-process known as rumination. In a McGill psychology lecture by Professor Melanie Dirks, she illustrates that “rumination is the tendency to dwell on problems and not solve them, thus linking rumination and dwelling to a negative mood” (Dirks, Depression Lecture, November 11, 2015). Thus, the like button carries with it a positive connotation, but also a capacity to provoke sadness, depressed mood or a subjective intensity within affect. It would be advantageous if future studies built off of this notion of anxiety and depression as linked with the Facebook like button, for no studies have been provided to date.

Let us now explore the gender relations with regard to posting selfies. Sarah Gram, author of “The Young-Girl and the Selfie,” suggests that there is a cycle of disgust when it comes to women and selfies (Gram 3-4). From a feminist perspective, this is very telling. Since women are often viewed by men as objects in real life, both genders internalize this mentality, and thus women post more pictures that focus in on the physical aspects over anything else, which in turn promotes this cycle of attention-seeking behavior, and can be misinterpreted as sexual objectification. Thus, liking a selfie based on a woman’s level of attractiveness reinforces this cycle of disgust. Therefore, while we can see the positives of liking a nice picture, the role of the like button also contributes to a woman’s self-worth and this cycle plays out over and over again. I also question the fact that most men on Facebook do not post selfies, and if they do, it is rare. Does this mean that women have a need to feel more validated than men on social media? And, if this is true, then we need to start thinking about breaking down these gender norms.

While the concepts of validation and self-worth are incredibly important when it comes to the like button, we cannot rule out the notion of popularity. It is known, and has been known, that attractiveness and allure rule above all else. When it comes to celebrities, it is not just about power and status; it comes down to beauty and normative standards that all individuals seem to internalize. Beauty norms, therefore, do not fall on a spectrum; there is one standard and one alone. These norms, especially for women, can be incredibly problematic. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, a person’s level of attractiveness is based on what they know to be true and what a person has internalized as reality. For the like button, then, there is this explicit notion that a more attractive person that fits these beauty standards will get a greater amount of likes. Boyd, once again, would jump in and state that these beauty standards are apparent in real life too. However, I contend that in real life, our approval is implicit, whereas the like button is an explicit way to approve of these beauty standards. It is like we have become a herd of sheep following a shepherd and not questioning where he is taking us. The like button, arguably, has contributed to a popularity contest on Facebook. This is the problem: we accept what is and we do not think critically about why we privilege certain people or things above others. How can there be any progress if we do not think about these things?

Today, Facebook offers more than just a like button; there is a ‘love’ button, a ‘wow’ button, a ‘ha-ha’ button, a ‘sad’ button and an ‘angry’ button. If there is one thing I can thank Facebook for, it is that they did not include a ‘dislike’ button; I would be incredibly concerned for the negative psychological impact it would have on individuals. Zuckerberg articulates this well: “For many years though, people have asked us to add a “dislike” button. Not every moment is a good moment, and sometimes you just want a way to express empathy. . . . [This was] the best way to give you better options for expressing yourself, while keeping the experience simple and respectful” (Zuckerberg, Facebook post on October 8, 2015). While I still believe that the Facebook like button is more than just a ‘simple’ method of expression, I commend Zuckerberg for not including the dislike button, as it could have become dangerous and harmful for many.

In this paper, I have argued that the like button can have significant effects on the brain and that it contributes to a harmful cycle of the ego, in which people feel compelled to both search for likes and like other people’s posts. While visibility, popularity and self-branding play a role in getting more ‘likes,’ it seems likely that there are other psychological processes at hand that contribute to our need for external gratification and internal validation. I argue that validation is what we seek most (in real life and online) and that through the like button, we can achieve a short-term ego boost, which never settles into the long-term and can never truly fix this necessity for approval or reassurance; in other words, you are always left wanting more because you have not been fulfilled. It might be human nature to want to connect with people, but online, it is about more than just connecting: it is about receiving positive reinforcement. We want people to agree with us and to validate us as participatory individuals in the social media sphere. On Facebook, in particular, as I have explained, the like button has more to do with generating a false sense of self-worth than anything else. Some readers will probably laugh and scoff at my analysis of the like button; perhaps they will say that I am over-analyzing an artifact that means ‘nothing’ in the grand scheme of things. Well, to these readers, I would say that most of us probably do not even know that we are caught in this cycle of fabricated self-worth. Of course, it is very possible that some individuals do not care about it or do not use the like button at all; perhaps some people feel that the like button is just about showing support and nothing more; and, maybe others choose to comment instead of ‘like’ a post. In this regard, we have to keep in mind that not everyone will feel the same way about the like button, and most will not think twice about pressing it. Nevertheless, I feel as if more research needs to be done, especially linking mood, anxiety and depression with the like button. In any case, I will offer you some advice. The next time that you post a selfie or a photo of yourself, get off Facebook immediately. Choose to spend a few hours not thinking about who will like your photo or how many likes you may get. Go back online later knowing that you made the choice to accept yourself as you are, and that you do not need immediate ‘likes.’ Ultimately, we need to focus more on our own internal validation rather than seek out gratification from individuals in our ‘friend’ group. This, kind reader, is what I would like for you to take away from this paper.

Works Cited

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Branding the Postfeminist Self: the Labor of Femininity.” Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2012. 51-89. Print.

Boyd, Danah. “Introduction.” It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014

Dirks, Melanie. “Rumination: Lecture on Depression.” November 11, 2015.

Eranti, Veikko and Markku Lonkila. “The Social Significance of the Facebook Like Button.” First Monday, Volume 20, Number 6. June 1, 2015.

Gram, Sarah. “The Young-Girl and the Selfie.” Web blog post. Textual Relations. Blogger. March 1, 2013. Web. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Peake, Philip K., Yuichi Shoda and Walter Mischel. “Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions.” Developmental Psychology. Vol. 26, No. 6, 1990, pp. 978-986.

Shouse, Eric. “Feeling, Emotion, Affect.” M/C Journal. Volume 8, Number 6, December 2015.

Tajfel, H. (1979). Social Identity Theory. In D. M. Taylor and F. M. Moghaddam (2nd Ed.), Theories of Intergroup Relations: International Social Psychological Perspectives (pp. 77-81). Connecticut, United States: Praeger.

Zuckerberg, Mark. “A Test of Reactions.” Facebook. October 8, 2015. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Personal Research on the Subject:

I received feedback from 10 people with regard to their thoughts on the like button. Below, you will find the top themes and top coded words that came through in their messages.

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