Facebook co-founder Sean Parker once described the platform he helped build as “a social-validation feedback loop exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” You, the user, get a high when people engage with your content; when people like the things you post; a high which, in turn, makes you want to post more and more. And thus a vicious circle, which only really benefits the platform but deludes the user into thinking they are getting something, too, was born.
Twitter, while distinct from Facebook, operates similarly. Which is why a report Monday morning from The Telegraph claiming that Twitter intends to ditch its like button — the heart icon underneath a tweet showing a counter of the number of accounts that have liked a given tweet — should set off your BS alarms. “Founder Jack Dorsey last week admitted at a Twitter event that he was not a fan of the heart-shaped button and that it would be getting rid of it ‘soon,’” the story’s vague lede claims. Twitter weighed in shortly after the story was published to set the record straight, saying it is considering a number of options for “incentivizing healthy conversation.” It noted those options could impact the like button, but provided no other details. “We’ve been open that we’re considering it. Jack even mentioned it in front of the U.S. Congress. There’s no timeline,” Brandon Borrman, Twitter communications VP, also tweeted.
In human-speak, Twitter is no more considering removing the like button than it is considering removing any other of its other existing features. If you want to play this game, you could say Twitter is also considering taking away the feature that lets you customize your timeline with different colors and forcing everyone to use the standard blue because blue is a soothing color and that would foster healthier conversations. Or that it’s getting rid of personalized avatars because that would foster healthier conversation. Twitter is a company that is trying to grow and evolve and stay relevant … of course it’s always considering changing anything that might aid in those efforts.
Last week, I met with a number of folks at Twitter who talked to me about various plans — things that may or may not happen — to change things on the platform. Prototypes for things like status indicators — think the little green dot that shows when you’re available on Gchat — and new structures for replies to tweets to make them more conversational. There was no mention of anything related to the like button. And why would there be? If you’re Twitter, the like button literally shows engagement. It’s an easy way for users to participate in those “healthy conversations” it’s so obsessed with engineering. Removing the “like” button, which currently gives users a tacit way to show they agree or support or were amused by something without having to comment, would force those users to make a choice. Comment outright, which many users likely wouldn’t do, or just watch the tweet go by and say nothing. That latter option isn’t good for Twitter. Quiet likes are better than total silence.
Users like likes. Our stupid human brains enjoy the dopamine trip that comes with validation from other humans on the internet; a trip that’s furthered by the Twitter algorithm that shows your tweet to more users the more likes it gets — thus drawing in more likes. And Twitter, a platform that currently has problems with deadly, real world consequences to tackle, probably isn’t going to get rid of something its users actually enjoy. And even if they did, remember that time Twitter said it would no longer notify users when they were added to lists? You likely don’t. People complained so quickly and loudly, the platform rolled back the change in under two hours. A removal of the like button outright would, I’d imagine, go similarly.
Should Twitter get rid of likes? Eh, if you’re going to make that argument, you should probably be asking if Twitter should be getting rid of metrics outright. And that’s not a half bad idea. (Kanye West tweeted a similar argument a few weeks back and he was, for a change, not wrong.) But doing it halfway wouldn’t ultimately benefit the user. And it certainly wouldn’t benefit Twitter. Which is really all that matters if you are, well, Twitter.