Disliking the Like

The “like” button had a nice run. Since April 2010, when Facebook replaced the “fan” with the like, it has spread far and wide around the Web. It has even become part of the culture — there are “I [thumbs-up button] New York” t-shirts for sale to the tourists in Times Square. Perhaps that’s why it’s inevitable that there’s a growing pushback to the “like” button.

Judging by social online ratings systems of liking and following and +1’ing , you would think that the Web was a super positive, happy place where everyone is always patting each other on the back and giving high-fives. Yet human interaction is more complicated. The “like” is an important social signal, online and offline. If Facebook is going to live up to its mission of mapping the world’s social relationships, it’s going to have to acknowledge that — in the words of its early relationship option — it’s complicated. Sometimes a stark “like” choice isn’t enough. You can see that when someone takes to Facebook to announce the death of a pet. Inevitably, there are one or two people who like the update, presumably to show support.

Beyond those kinds of awkward moments, there is a serious case to be made against the “like,” more nuanced than the recent move by a German politician to ban it. A world where you can only like things diminishes the value of the people/things being liked. As Jonathan Franzen put it:

…if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.

People have been clamoring for a “dislike” button for a while (the Facebook “Dislike Button” group has 3,309,517 likes). It hasn’t come. It seems that there is a great concern about letting people dislike things for fear that it would turn the Web into a hater’s haven. It could also be about money. AT&T boasts 1.6 million “likes.” Can you imagine the numbers it would rack up in the aftermath of a “dislike” button? Brands and content producers fear that they would get buried in a pile of unmanageable dislikes. At the introduction of Facebook’s initial social advertising foray, our editor in chief asked Zuckerberg why Facebook only surfaced positive social actions. After all, people make decisions based on a complicated array of social signals, some of which are negative. Zuckerberg simply responded, “That’s not part of the product.”

But what about balance? And if we’re going to be technical about it, honesty? If people could like and also dislike, wouldn’t that create a much more honest and realistic dialogue online? The ability to dislike online would add more credibility to “likes”; it could actually make social media engagement an insightful and useful tool for brands and content producers, and for regular old people too.

Allowing dislikes online would involve a little more legwork for everyone as far as moderating goes, but it would make the social Web a more sincere place and not just a “private hall of flattering mirrors,” as Franzen describes it. According to its mission statement, Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” In the real world, people dislike things. If Facebook wants to be open, it should consider including a “dislike” feature as part of its product.

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