Would the Internet Be Healthier Without 'Like' Counts?

Online, value is quantifiable. The worth of a person, idea, movement, meme, or tweet is often based on a tally of actions: likes, retweets, shares, followers, views, replies, claps, and swipes-up, among others.

Each is an individual action. Together, though, they take on outsized meaning. A YouTube video with 100,000 views seems more valuable than one with 10, even though views—like nearly every form of online engagement—can be easily bought. It’s a paradoxical love affair. And it’s far from an accident.

Increased engagement is good for business, and the impulse to check the score is an easy way to keep users coming back. As Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey put it at last year’s WIRED25 conference: “Right now we have a big Like button with a heart on it and we’re incentivizing people to want it to go up,” and to get more followers.

But these tactics are attracting increased scrutiny, about their impact on the health of the internet and on society at large. Publicly measurable indicators—including views, retweets, or likes—are “one of the driving forces in radicalization,” says Whitney Phillips, a media manipulation researcher and associate professor at Syracuse University. It works both ways, she says. A user can be radicalized by consuming content and a creator can be radicalized by users’ reactions to their content, as they tailor their behavior around what garners the most interest from their audience.

The concerns are leading some companies to explore ways to promote “conversational health.” Over the past year, Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), Twitter, and YouTube have moved to deemphasize or eliminate key metrics in the name of promoting healthy user engagement. The trend gave birth to a word you won’t find in dictionaries: demetrication.

Yet the changes have been decried by some of the very users they were meant to aid, who view the metrics as an essential part of their experience. That’s left platforms in the awkward position of detoxing users from an addiction they initially introduced to users.

Over the past year, even rumors of demetrication have sent users into a full-blown panic. When Dorsey followed up his comments about likes by questioning whether the button itself should exist, people flipped out. User panic reached a fever pitch a few days later, after a Telegraph report detailed a meeting where Dorsey reportedly questioned the utility of the Like button and said it could disappear “soon.” Users took to Twitter en masse to decry the decision, with many posting updates threatening to leave the platform if left without likes; dozens of tweets criticizing the idea quickly went viral—all without Twitter saying anything about the feature’s fate.

The same thing happened in March, after users got wind of a test in Twitter’s semipublic prototype app twttr, referred to internally as “little t,” which hid some like and retweet tallies. The change was designed to encourage users to focus on the content of tweets rather than on which one racked up the most likes.

The metrics were visible to “little t” users who tapped on the tweet, and the update had not been pushed to the official Twitter app. But early reports on the feature sent users into a tizzy. Outrage over the possible change amassed so quickly that Twitter issued a statement clarifying that it was merely a test.

Over the past few months, Twitter has continued to test the feature among “little t” users, with mixed results. The experiment resulted in less overall engagement, a spokesperson confirmed, which doesn’t bode well for its chances of being pushed to the main Twitter app.

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