Facebook’s ‘Like’ button makes me lonely

As a researcher, I expect myself to make mistakes all the time. It’s sort of par for the course, and a great way to learn. You build little tests to try out social designs, learn, and move on.  But before a company like Facebook is willing to deal with a huge firestorm of privacy issues, you’d think that they’d do the same. Well…maybe not.

By now, you’re probably familiar with Facebook’s recent move to automatically detect your identity as you move across web sites and allow you to Like any page without logging in.  It set off all sorts of privacy alarms. But you know what? It stinks as a social design.

Try it. Go to CNN.com, look in the right column, and see how many of your friends have Liked or shared posts. Look at a popular ReadWriteWeb post, one with 1,238 Likes as of this writing, and see how many of your friends have liked it.  None of mine have.

Fundamentally, this means that the web is a lonelier place for me. It’s like walking on a sidewalk on one side of the street, where it’s totally empty, and getting a glimpse that the other side of the street is crowded with friends chatting. The friends are there: they’re just not mine. I must be a loser.

This is a design problem with multiplicities: there are simply too many places on the web for my friends to Like and too few of my friends. There are even fewer of my friends who are active in social web apps like Facebook.  If you had a personalized version of Digg that only showed you diggs from your Facebook friends, I’d bet things would get 1-3 diggs, max.  There are some things you just need a crowd for.

Things only work at social network scale when the entire network can focus their attention on relatively few items. That’s why the News Feed works, but the global Like doesn’t.  This leads to the interesting question of how you’d prototype this kind of design and decide that it does (or doesn’t) work, without rolling it out to the entire world.

16 Responses to “Facebook’s ‘Like’ button makes me lonely”

  • Adam says:

    CSAIL Wordpress blogs really ought to implement the Facebook Like buttons, just for irony of course.

    On another note, I think Facebook did a great job, just because you don’t see your friends doesn’t mean your alone… The fact that you may see those three other friends sometime (and more so when the platform expands), ties the web closer together, (and closer to the daunting Facebook, but thats their show). Anyways, more connections, especially smarter connections, are always helpful. I’d ever jump to say that thinking of social status and fitting in is pretty ridiculous, so I hope you don’t mind I got a good laugh out of the post.

  • Bertil Hatt says:

    I have to agree with you on how surprising, and it’s not by lack of trying to be friends with gee—… academics working on on-line phenomena. A similar feature based on my twitter list (or even better, what would be an updated version of my RSS Reader list) would be better; a more structured version based on even larger shared interest lists (“5 people who also actively contribute the OpenID Connect e-mail distribution list also liked that”) would be great.

    At least, you can admire the positive spin it has: it is a relevant article, and you could make it known to your people. Except you can’t filter your “What’s a login again?!” mom away from a recommendation on the technicalities of a three-times corrected RWW (commendable) post on self-ajustable virtual standard committees.

    Oddly enough, the only tool along those lines that I’ve seen is “Link different”, to do the opposite, i.e. *not* to twit about a story re-hashed by those read by your follower. It’s very useful, but should not could as a negative vote on a story.

  • Michael,

    One of the issues with social design is precisely that it is so hard to test certain design elements. Our conventional bodies of knowledge, both academic and industry doesn’t have the right framework to think through social design. I continue to advocate to everyone I meet that social design needs to be established as it’s own discipline with it’s own methods and standards of proof.


  • @Hang: Yes, absolutely. I think we need a Wizard-of-Oz equivalent for social designs. If you have ideas, you could change the field. :) Aardvark has done the best I’ve seen in this space, using MTurk to simulate an AI. Maybe we could use Turkers to simulate other users?

    @Adam: always glad to leave someone with a laugh.

    @Bertil: great points. Link Different (by @eegilbert) is an interesting turnabout of the system, trying to _not_ be like your friends. Maybe the right design should be something closer to, “Your friends haven’t liked this yet!” and when you click it, it should say, “FIRST!”.

  • Ben says:

    It’s called “early”, not “lonely”. It’s because you’re an early adopter. Not because design is a failure. Try liking that article, your friends will start liking it.

  • [...] Facebook friends, your online world could start feeling a little more lonely. As Michael Bernstein points out, visiting sites like CNN.com can feel a lot more empty if you don’t have many Facebook [...]

  • Psycoth says:

    You’ve forgotten one very important thing. Facebook’s “Like” button was not created for it’s users). It was created so that Facebook could generate a profile of its users, and then that information could be used to do such things as target ads or sell off that information to other companies.

    Most Facebook users won’t notice, but this is a very good example of how not to design features. If you really want to create something that will engage your users and be useful to them, you need to design with their needs in mind.

    For Facebook, this doesn’t seem to matter since the “Like” button is a small add on to a much larger infrastructure, but there have been plenty of businesses who make this mistake with major feature sets or their product as a whole.

  • Vineet Sinha says:

    Good points but I don’t completely agree… There is a big difference between CNN and RWW installations of the widget. At CNN I see if any of my friends have liked *any* article on the site. Perhaps, also because of its size – I do have friends who have liked an article on it. And again, because of its size – and my desire to show myself as an early adoptor I do want to like an article there. In contrast while I do still have the early adoptor tendencies at RWW I don’t feel like I will be able to show-off as much – and therefore don’t feel like ‘Like’ing as much.

    If anything this just goes to show that (a) facebook can fine-tune its social plumbing and (b) ‘good’ implementations of of the like button are needed depending on your size, etc.

  • [...] person recently commented that the Facebook Like button made him feel lonely. Fundamentally, this means that the web is a lonelier place for me. It’s like walking on a [...]

  • Tamana says:

    Hi Michael,

    I never thought myself lonely in the online world…..but after reading your post I started wondering….


  • [...] have liked this”. Yet, none of those people are my friends! Thank you Micheal Bernstein for reminding me about [...]

  • [...] argued a few weeks ago that Facebook’s Like button got the incentives and multiplicities wrong, leading to a social experience that feels very isolating. There are simply too many sites for us [...]

  • Harneet Kaur says:

    I think it doesn’t make me lonely……

  • Gabriel says:

    I wholeheartedly agree, Michael. While it’s kind of okay to be able to ‘like’ whatever your friends post (barring that awful feeling when I’m just not getting as many likes as some of the more popular friends of mine), it looks just so foreign to me when I saw ‘like’ on a random website I happen to be reading.

    “None of your friends likes it yet. Be the first to ‘Like’ it”

    Well, of course, cause very few of my friends share these particular interests with me like trading card games, gender issue debates and an uncommon, weird sort of sexual fetish! I don’t see any problem in having my own hobbies, but that omnipresent ‘Like’ prompt needs to go away.

    And I always make sure I don’t click on ‘Like’ accidentally when I’m on those websites about that certain uncommon, weird sort of sexual fetish. :P

  • Julie Beman says:

    I’ve spent some time thinking about the “like” button: http://cloudywithachanceofsun.com/?p=131