Commentary

What we talk about when we talk about 'like'

What we talk about when we talk about 'like'
Photo by Clay Hamilton
by Irina Raicu J.D. ’09 |
Internet ethics expert Irina Raicu J.D. ’09 considers why clicking a button isn’t necessarily an endorsement. This piece first appeared on WSJ Marketwatch on Aug. 21, 2012.

In early August, both Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed amicus briefs in the appeal of Bland v. Roberts, arguing that the act of “liking” something on Facebook should receive First Amendment protection. They were responding to a case in which a government employee was fired after “liking” the Facebook page of his boss’ political opponent. The district court judge had ruled that “merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.” In challenging that mistaken decision, though, the ACLU and Facebook mischaracterize—by oversimplifying—the meaning of a Facebook “like.”

It may seem silly to claim that one can oversimplify the meaning of clicking a button that says “like” or shows a thumbs-up icon. However, corporate policies have redefined that click. And if hundreds of millions of people take a particular action, intentionally, each day, with implications for free speech and free association, its meaning is worth clarifying.

"It is a disservice to the broader conversation to argue that clicking 'like' always constitutes an endorsement."

Both Facebook and the ACLU claim that the meaning of a “like” is clear. The ACLU brief states that “clicking the ‘like’ button announces to others that the user supports, approves, or enjoys the content being ‘liked.’ … That is especially the case when a user 'likes' a political candidate, as that is a clear sign of support for that candidate.” The brief adds that “when a user ‘likes’ a movie, television show, or game, it shows that he or she enjoys that product,” and that “if a user ‘likes’ another user’s comment or post, he or she is expressing approval of the information conveyed by that other user.”

All of those claims are problematic. First, when Facebook users “like” another user’s post, the target of their approval is often less than clear—and frequently not “the information conveyed.” That’s why “likes” are often accompanied by additional comments (“I didn’t like it that you had surgery; I like how you described it.”)

Second, when applied to an article or blog entry, a “like” becomes even less clear and less connected to enjoyment or endorsement. In the Facebook ecosystem, clicking “like” is also an easy way to share content (especially now that Facebook is phasing out the “Share” button).

While the Merriam-Webster definition of “to like” is “to feel attraction toward or take pleasure in,” there are many stories that users share even though they like nothing about those stories—in fact sometimes precisely for that reason. So, when people click “like” in connection with a show or an article, they may not be conveying that they “enjoy that product,” as the ACLU brief put it.

The biggest shift from the traditional definition, however, happens in the interaction between Facebook users and companies or organizations that set up Facebook pages. Until 2010, Facebook allowed people to “become a fan” of such entities. In April 2010, however, Facebook announced that the “like” button would replace the “become a fan.”

As the company explained, “people will be able to connect with [a] page by clicking ‘like’ rather than ‘become a fan.’ We hope this action will feel much more lightweight, and that will increase the number of connections made across the site.”

According to media reports, the number of connections made did indeed increase—but perhaps those connections were themselves more “lightweight.”

In fact, a recent study conducted by online marketing company ExactTarget found that “only 42 percent of active Facebook users agree that marketers should interpret ‘like’ to mean they are a fan or advocate for the company.”

Instead, many consumers clicked “like” simply to receive updated content from those pages, including coupons. Others “liked” pages in order to be entered into sweepstakes and contests. As social marketing company Fancorps put it, “In reality that button should actually read ‘opt-in.’”

As for “liking” a political candidate, the ACLU amicus brief claims that “when a user ‘likes’ a political candidate … that is a clear sign of support for that candidate.” However, people interested in following certain candidates or groups may also “like” their pages without any intent to express affinity or support.

As one anonymous poster commented in response to a Wall Street Journal article, “I ‘like’ Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but I’m only a supporter of one of them. It’s similar to being on a mailing list.” The “like” in that case does express an interest, and an association—but not much more.

I agree with the ACLU and Facebook that the “liking” at issue in that case was a communicative act that denoted a particular kind of association, and should be protected by the First Amendment. However, it is a disservice to the broader conversation to argue that clicking “like” always constitutes an endorsement.

The choices made by Facebook and other corporations and organizations that use the Facebook platform have created an environment in which the meaning of that four-letter word must be determined from its broader context.
 

Irina Raicu J.D. ’09 is the Internet ethics program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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