Why we ‘like’
Last week I gave a quick talk at the latest Free Dinner, organised by Adam of Free State. The evening was geared around discussing why people like. With other talkers having backgrounds in writing, events planning and neuroscience, I looked at the motivations for people liking and sharing online, and why that is rooted in a much more primal need to belong. My slides are below, along with a rough transcript of my talk.
If there’s one thing that Facebook has done it’s too change the meaning of the word like. It’s gone from being quite a positive approval to banal and often apathetic signifier of acknowledgment. A co-worker puts up a funny video? Like. A person puts up a photo of their new born child? Like. I’m sure Jesus’s second coming will probably be met with a wave of thumbs up too.
This is interesting because it’s not a real conversation; it’s almost an acknowledgment that you don’t want a conversation. You wouldn’t respond to someone in a conversation simply by shouting ‘LIKE’.
I could talk about Facebook helping bring about the demise of language and interaction for hours, but it would probably be more akin to a rant. Instead I thought I’d explore the other side of ‘liking’ – where people like content, and try to understand exactly what motivates us to ‘like’.
We’re not individuals
We all like to think we’re individuals. From the way, we dress, how we speak, even the people we choose to associate with – they’re all an expression of me. Of who I am.
But actually we’re not all the isolated individuals we think we are. We all wear masks. We all pretend to be something we are not. We want to show that we’re slightly cooler, slightly more confident, slightly more laid back. We present ourselves to the external world as a slightly better version of ourselves.
And that’s because we aren’t just one person. We constantly monitor and shape the image of ourselves. Whether subconsciously through things like body language – we all subtly mirror people we like, or consciously by the clothes we wear, the make-up we put on, even the words we chose to use. We adapt and skew who we are in different situations. And those situations are different depending on which group of people we are with.
We all belong to different groups.
We have friendship groups, family groups, work groups. A man on a night out with old friends will behave differently than with a group of co-workers and certainly different with his family. We change our behaviour because we want to belong; we want to show that we are part of that group. This is especially apparent with young people, who tend to cluster around types of music and ways of dressing, so much so than you can tell which group they belong to just by looking at them. Every generation has these sorts of groups, from mods and rockers to the goths and hipsters. Whilst the need to belong certainly fades a little after teenage years, it’s still present in us all. Even people that say they don’t want to belong or conform are often reacting against something, and end up conforming to the opposite.
But it’s not just the need to belong to groups that drives us; we also feel the need to be significant within those groups. That’s not to say we all want to be famous, but we all want to be recognised. Want to be seen. And a lot of our behaviour is driven by these two needs, the need to belong and the need to be recognised.
This behaviour is heightened in the digital world, where we can shape a digital profile incredibly easily. Picking the right profile picture, only uploading flattering holiday pictures, liking the right bands. All this behaviour is creating a ‘better’ version of ourselves, the person we want the world to see. Liking is a tool we have to build this profile – it’s a form showing who we are, but it’s also an act of sharing – sharing things within our groups.
I like cats
By liking a video on YouTube, or a band’s page or a picture of a cat you are sharing that to your Facebook page and by extension showing it to your friends, you’re saying I like this funny video, I like this band or I like cats. And you’re showing your worth, your significance. You’re showing that you can bring new things to the group, things that they too will like.
Liking fulfils our two base needs – the need to belong and to be significant. We like to show who we are, and we like to bring something to the group.
Broadly speaking there are four types of content that we like: content that our friends will be entertained by, things that our friends will find useful, stuff that makes or saves them money and knowledge that is interesting to them. By liking we are implicitly stating that we are entertaining, useful, helpful with money or interesting as individuals.
Liking is an act of self-expression
Liking, then, is a form of self-expression. It’s us wanting to show who we are, and to get recognition for it. It’s us saying “I like this content that I think you too will like it”.
We like because we want to be liked.