How important are likes on social media?

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We were fascinated by this recent article from Forbes about the potential for ‘likes’ to be phased out of social media. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in his TED talk that if he could remake Twitter, he would minimise the prominence of likes, or even more drastically: ‘I don’t think I’d even create “like” in the first place’. 


Likes, favourites, upvotes or however each individual social media platform chooses to express its approval function have been a central component of social media since its inception. Algorithms within platforms like Facebook use likes to determine how widely pieces of content should be disseminated. Generally speaking, the more likes something has, the wider its audience grows, as social media is designed to create exponential engagement. 


So why is the function suddenly being criticised? Part of the opinion swing against likes comes from a reframing of social media as potentially harmful, particularly to the mental and emotional health of young people. When someone likes a post on social media, the poster gets a dopamine hit, a chemical associated with pleasure. New York University professor Adam Alter explains: ‘When someone likes your Instagram post, or any content that you share, it’s a little bit like taking a drug.’ 


Part of the reason that receiving likes induces a dopamine response is because it represents a risk. When posting a piece of content, it’s impossible to know how many likes it will receive, so it’s almost like a gamble. But like gambling, and drug taking, the process is addictive, and like most addictions, it can lead to unhealthy dependency. 


Because of the increasing presence of social media and technology more widely in our lives, particularly the lives of children, people are starting to consider the effects of exposing children to this addictive activity so early in their brain’s development. The negative effect of early social media exposure on self esteem has been widely researched


On the other hand, the ability to like content on social media can be beneficial. It’s an easy and low effort way of sharing your approval or opinion on a piece of content, as well as increasing the likelihood of it being seen by people in your network. It’s hard to imagine social media entirely being able to unravel the like functionality, but there are certainly persuasive arguments for placing less emphasis on the feature.

Emma Bartlett