Thumbs Up! There’s a Lot to Like About ‘Like’

 

A HEART SYMBOL can be a powerful branding tool to create a positive atmosphere, according to Anthony Volodkin, creator and chief executive of Brooklyn-based Hype Machine. “All the imagery of the heart on Hype Machine is about finding an easy way to communicate passion,” he said.

Hype Machine’s Web bots scour music blogs for reviews and songs, then gather all the material into one spot—hypem.com. Users can click on a heart next to an MP3 posted on Hype Machine, and add it to their list of “loved songs.” They can do the same for blogs or other users they like, resulting in a stream of their favorite music, accessible in their profile. They can also discover new bands by checking out artists that are the “most blogged,” and MP3s that have “most plays” and, of course, “most favorites.”

When Tumblr first launched their “like” feature in November last year, it worked similarly to Facebook’s, as a direct message of appreciation. “In the beginning, [the “like” function] was just sticking a little note under the post,” David Karp, Tumblr’s founder and chief executive, told The Observer. “You personally want to let me know, ‘Hey, you enjoyed this. I’m here and I’m a fan.’” Mr. Karp said integrating the “like” feature was about creating, and controlling, how users interacted on each other’s blogs.

Mr. Karp explained that Tumblr doesn’t integrate a commenting function, a “Swiss Army knife of user interaction,” because it can be a murky, and frankly negative, area for white noise between bloggers. Tumblr allows users to “reblog” entries, which posts the original text or picture, along with their commentary, on the “re-blogger’s” own site. “Re-blogging on Tumblr forces you to be very considerate of what you post because you’re going to be mucking up your own space,” Mr. Karp explained. “It’s not just a comment on someone else’s blog. Liking is the same thing.”

But as Tumblr users experimented with the more basic “like” function, they wondered, what’s in it for them? “It’s hard often for a community to appreciate something that’s really just about giving feedback. Very often, they want it to serve some kind of functional purpose for them,” Mr. Karp said.

For a few weeks, Mr. Karp and his team wrestled over the meaning of changing the mechanism of the “like” feature. If Tumblr was about creating a positive social atmosphere, how would making the “like” feature into a self-serving tool change the way users interact on the site? “We just wanted it to be a social interaction, not a functional tool,” Mr. Karp said.

Eventually, Tumblr’s coders created a page where users could look at all the things they liked, creating a kind of social timeline for how they discovered content. Mr. Karp seems happy with the change because Tumblr users find it neat and useful. But he told The Observer that he wonders: “Are you less likely to hit that button, to like something, if you don’t want to muck up that page that you go to to look back and browse things you like?” So, in other words, will users start liking less?

And if all of these “likes” are creating a more insular, catered experience for users based on their friends’ preferences, will they bother seeking new things and ideas outside of their comfort zone?

We’ll take the risk. The Internet provides all of us the essential space to critique, debate and discuss, as well as a home for useless snark (as David Denby asserts) and indecipherable, anonymous and often cruel commenting (peruse the verbose buffoonery on YouTube for proof on that one). In this environment, the “like” function seems like a welcome antidote—a lightweight way to revolutionize our attitude about, and on, the Web. And, yeah, we like that!

greagan@observer.com