Don’t fear Facebook’s ‘Like’ button

It’s easy to associate Facebook’s ubiquitous blue thumbs-up with everything we fear about the digital age. It can symbolize our shallow desire for social approval (we don’t even want to be liked anymore, we’ll settle for being liked on Facebook!) or maybe a reduction of social interaction to clicking and tapping. Not only that, we find ourselves hearing and sometimes speaking sentences such as, “You should ‘Like’ Think Christian on Facebook!” (which you should do by the way). We’re a little uncomfortable with someone asking, literally, to be liked.

A recent Slate article, though, had me rethinking my mild loathing of that little button, and my own frequent use of it. In the story Torie Bosch explains, “At its lightweight heart, pushing the button really says ‘I hear you,’ ‘Uh-huh,’ ‘I acknowledge this’ or ‘Yup.’ It says, ‘I read this and thought about it for a second.’” 

When we talked about the article in one of my classes, students agreed that they had used the button in all of these ways. One student said that for some friends, she’ll push the button on every post they make. When I think about it, I realize I do the same thing. I use the button the same way we use nonverbal feedback in person. Sometimes when someone is talking, especially in a group situation (which in many ways Facebook imitates), you don’t respond verbally because you don’t have much to add or say. Instead you respond with nonverbal signals that you are paying attention, you understand or maybe you agree. You give a nod of the head, a smile, a quiet mmm-hmm.

Now, certainly, if all of your social interaction consisted of head-nods, waves and thumbs-up icons, you’d have an impoverished social world. But I don’t think that’s what we do online or in real life. I think the “Like” button gives us more opportunities for the everyday small ways to say to others that they are loved, valued and children of God. Christians will often praise the value of a smile or a hello to a stranger or friend. I am starting to wonder if the “Like” button is the equivalent of that smile online. It acknowledges someone else’s humanity. Even if we don’t actually like whatever they posted, what we are really saying is “I like you.”

This balance is probably what Shauna Niequist is getting at in a recent Relevant post. She argues for deep interpersonal relationships, where we are willing to reveal the parts of our life we wouldn’t brag about on Instagram. I agree with her that these relationships are essential for everyone, but especially those who hope to live in Christian community.

However, let’s stay away from an all-or-nothing framework about the depth of our relationships and interactions. Lightweight interactions are not meaningless and distant friendships have value. They can never replace a few close relationships, but it is often through showing kindness to people who are distant or different that we learn the most. The group of people I might say hello to on a sidewalk or smile at in a checkout line is much more diverse than those I know best. And that variety is a good thing.

Keeping more people in my online circle of interaction matters too. And one way I can represent to them that they matter is by pushing the “Like” button. So like away - when you see the image of God in a classmate’s new baby or when a former coworker just ran her first 5K. Affirmation is a gift from God - let’s share it generously!

Comments (8)

Leave a Comment
I frequently use "like" in those situations, but I know for myself I'd rather a comment. A comment show commitment. So I comment, as much as I can when my friends are talking. Not a lot mind you, but just a little something so they know I care.
well played.
Hmmm, I seem to recall some criticisms of an 'all or nothing' approach... :)

Well thought out, Bethany. I think what you're saying is important and taps into the reality of how Facebook is used for communication. I am forced to wonder, though, whether you are too quick to overlook the dark side of the 'like' button - you allude, for instance, to the equation of Facebook likes with self-esteem. What about the study that showed correlation of Facebook likes with intelligence?

I also found myself wondering... if the 'like' functions as a nonverbal affirmative communication, should Facebook introduce more such cues? Would a 'dislike' button be used to show negative nonverbals?
As you imply, Kory, I think we need to find a healthy balance between the good and right desire to receive love from others in community, and resting too much of our self-image in a certain kind of human affirmation. That is a separate issue, though, from our affirming responses to others.

I actually really liked what the facebook employee said on reddit, quoted in the slate article linked above: That facebook tries to focus on positive interactions, and in a situation where someone is sharing something sad or bad, the extra effort of a comment (even if it is, "I wish there was a dislike button!") means a lot to the recipient.
Perhaps a bit aside from the point of your piece, Facebook is a corporation that offers its service in exchange for something that it successfully turns in to power and money. On that level we ought to be judicious and wise with our "liking".

I'll like pictures and posts from friends and even smaller entities TC, churches, community groups, etc. but am leery of liking major corporations with significant advertising budgets. We should be a bit aware of the power and money behind this tool we enjoy and can use for blessing. pvk
I would second Paul's comment. That innocuous "like" button is part of a much larger marketing project in which your preferences are turned into a portfolio. Although it may not seem much to you, who and what you like can be read as indicative of a number of other likely preferences. This is the power of Big Data.

So while I will "like" you or that cute picture of your child (and honestly, who couldn't), elsewhere, I prefer leaving a word.
Thank you for this (says the Silicon Valley wife whose financial future depends, in part, on the use of the like button!).

With that bias disclosed, I think Paul's concern about the corporate nature of facebook is a good one. (Note also, the corporate nature of google, apple, pick!). I don't "like" anything but friends posts about their own lives and organizations, either.

So is Kory's question about how we actually use social media: to grow relationship or to allow it to atrophy. For instance, though social media has kept me from feeling like a completely isolated stay at home parent, living in a new place, I wonder if it's also allowed me to pass on seeking out new relationships in this place.

What I love about your take, Bethany, is that it recognizes that the things human beings create (new technologies; corporations) are not in essence good or bad, but a complex mix, as we humans are. The same is true for how we engage technology and corporations.

I am often concerned, when reading Christian commentary on social media and advances in technology, that we immediately go for the bad, and forget the good. We forget that there are faithful people working in these industries to try to do good in the world. And then certain industries and corporations become our whipping boys.

So, thank you, for redeeming that big thumbs-up!


Leave a comment

A login account is required to leave a comment

See the latest in:


promo 1 promo 2
promo 3 promo 4

Donate Now