"You like me! Right now, you like me!"
That is, perhaps, the most iconic Oscar acceptance speech in the 80-plus years of the ceremony. Those words came from Sally Field when she won an Academy Award for Places in the Heart. The movie came out in 1984, long before social media (or even the Internet) was a reality, and when liking something — or someone — held value.
Today, announcing your favorites is quicker than typing "Facebook.com" into your browser. You just click the mouse or the touch screen on your smartphone and you've let the virtual world know you "like" that pair of fire engine-red heels on Zappos.com or that you fancy "cheese" and "bacon" (together in a grilled cheese sandwich). Your favorite store's Web site, blog posts and tourist attractions all have Facebook connections with "Like" buttons, too.
Companies want you to like them, or become fans, and you can't be on Facebook without seeing that so-and-so "likes bacon," suggesting that you, too, should like bacon. It is, in a way, the modern-day peer pressure. We feel forced — through that word of encouragement on our Facebook wall or through an email from the local pizza place — into endorsing a brand by putting our "like" behind it.
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The act of "networked liking" has diluted the significance of preference in the same way that the idea of "friend" has been diluted by the act of friending everyone and anyone through social networking sites, says Damien Smith Pfister, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Whenever something becomes easier to express, it threatens to make that expression less significant. The more difficult communication is, the more significant it tends to be."
Hard data on the number of "likes" an average Facebook user has have yet to be compiled, but an unscientific look at dozens of my 3,300 Facebook friends reveals that many have far more than 100 "likes" tied to their profile.
When it comes to business-based "likes," the stats are more tangible. The average number of "likes" per post on a brand's Facebook page is 54, according to Visibli, a company that helps companies brand and monetize shared links. This is a sign that people are watching and, at times, haphazardly putting their "stamp" on a company or product.
This willy-nilly liking has caused the term to change tremendously, and there is no hard definition of "like" anymore, says Lorrie Thomas Ross, a professor of social media marketing at the University of California, Berkeley Extension.
"Liking a business can mean many things to many people, there is no 'one-like-fits-all' approach," Ross says. "Someone may 'like' a page to get access to customer service information (like a baby stroller company to get help), then be on their way, never to engage again, where some may 'like' a business (like a fashion brand) because they are craving more brand engagement."
We begin prostituting our name — and Facebook profile pic — by putting our online identity behind something that can get us free goods. And, really, who doesn't like a free pizza, a chance to win a 10-day cruise or a year's supply of diapers?
The current trend toward "liking" is an unbalanced reflection of the human ability to like and dislike, Pfister says. There has been a demand to produce an official "dislike" button of Facebook for some time, but Facebook executives have resisted.
Why? "Probably because Facebook recognizes that cycles of 'liking' produce positive feelings that further embeds people's communicative lives into the site. 'Disliking' might turn the site more negative and ultimately cause people to tune out one more point source for cynicism and negativity," Pfister says. "At the same time, more dislike buttons would allow people to express a slightly wider range of reaction. Right now, it's 'like' or nothing — but wouldn't our conversations be enriched more by knowing what people don't like as well?"