Does Facebook Need an ‘Understand’ Button?

Does Facebook Need an ‘Understand’ Button?

When I was a child, I am told on reliable account, I would walk around our housing complex and take my thumb out of my mouth to ask neighbors, “Do you like me?” I had even pudgier cheeks back then, and my question came out as, “Do you dike me?” I’m guessing most everyone gave me a smile and thumbs up.

At some point, however, I stopped asking—not sure if it was because I stopped caring about the answer or because I eventually learned that you shouldn’t force people into saying they like you before they even know you.

On Facebook’s latest earnings call last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he’s made a similar self-discovery. Recapping a fourth-quarter with revenues of $21 billion and profits of $7 billion, Zuckerberg said he no longer cared what people thought about him. “My goal for this next decade,” he said, “isn’t to be liked, but to be understood.” He elaborated at a tech conference in Utah two days later: “This is the new approach, and I think it’s going to piss off a lot of people, but frankly the old approach was pissing off a lot of people too, so let’s try something different.”

His comments were dripping with irony. No institution has committed more fully to the concept of being “liked” than Facebook. Since Facebook introduced a button for producing them in 2009, likes have become the currency of the Internet. Everything can be liked—a comment, a news article, a photo, a post. And Facebook’s various platforms highlight the total number of likes for each expression of ourselves online, which quickly devolves into a way of quantifying and comparing your relative popularity and adjusting your behavior to be most liked.

It took a project team almost two years to win Zuckerberg’s approval for the like button, which had been conceived with noble intentions. (Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.) Facebook’s self-imposed mission is to connect the world, and a simple process of sending good feelings and support was expected to strengthen ties between people who only communicated online.

The blog post introducing the like button to the public begins with the liker. “We’ve just introduced an easy way to tell friends that you like what they’re sharing on Facebook with one easy click,” the note says. “Wherever you can add a comment on your friends’ content, you’ll also have the option to click ‘Like’ to tell your friends exactly that: ‘I like this.’ ” By the end of the brief note, the focus had turned to the person being liked.

There was a fear within Facebook that likes would replace written comments entirely, so the note explains the purpose of each. “If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars,” the note says. “But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new ‘Like’ feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.”

Under that framing, each of us needs interactions and praise to advertise to the world that we are worth a visit. Our success depends on having high scores. Now, a decade later, the Facebook subsidiary Instagram says it is considering ways to “depressurize the app.” Among the steps under consideration is to hide like totals from outsiders as a way of reducing competition and the urge to judge.

Zuckerberg has had a front-row seat to the madness that comes from chasing likes and appears amenable to reducing their influence, which would be a rare acknowledgement that his lifework hasn’t been exclusively for the good. By loudly giving up on being liked personally, however, Zuckerberg is conflating online life and offline life.

Wanting to be liked online is, indeed, a fool’s game, but wanting to be liked in the real world can be a worthwhile goal, especially for a quasi-public figure like Zuckerberg. Minimally, to be liked requires being attuned to what others are thinking and being open to changing one’s behavior.

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If Zuckerberg has been feeling unliked lately, it’s on account of Facebook’s decision to allow politicians to lie in advertising. The CEO has tried to justify that policy as a matter of freedom and democracy; no business, he argues, should be limiting what can be said in the political arena, even if it is manipulative and untrue. This, frankly, is an unlikable decision—one that shocks the conscience.

In response to the public’s disapproval, Zuckerberg replaced one youthful cri de coeur, Why don’t they like me, with another, No one understands me. These self-absorbed reactions would be funny and melodramatic if the fate of our democracy and society weren’t in the balance.

By seeking to be understood, Zuckerberg shows that he still cares what the public thinks about him. He’s just tired of trying so hard. Instead of walking in the shoes of a vulnerable citizen who suffers when a political system no longer represents all Americans, he’d like us to walk in his shoes as the head of a powerful social network.

Perhaps one day Facebook will install an Understood button, as well. (A white hand saluting against a blue background might work.) But what kind of online economy or community could rest on such one-way conversations? Message sent. Message received. Understood. Now what?

The Like grew out of a 2007 Facebook project with the code name “Props.” Too bad the team never tried using that word to define Facebook interactions, because I suspect more than being liked or understood, what Zuckerberg really wants is recognition—props for having done something awesome, for creating Facebook. He seeks respect, even from his critics, rather than mockery.

Yes, we should give props to Zuckerberg for what he has accomplished, and then move on to hold him accountable. It’s not enough that the public understand the decisions Facebook makes. We must approve of them. Then, who knows, we may even end up with a system of social networks that we like, too.


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