Your Facebook home page is about to get (even more) personal. Starting this week, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and friends are rolling out an overhaul of the “News Feed,” that scrolling catalog of posts about your friends’ doings, photos and comments. The phrase “What’s on your mind?” will replace the old-school “So and so is …” status format. Users will see, Twitter-like, real-time updates on what members of their networks, including politicians and groups, are up to. Best of all, new filtering tools will allow users to choose whose updates they’d like to see, and whose they’d rather not.
“You can decide you no longer want to get updates from your old friend from high school who you rarely talk to, or you can filter the stream to only see updates about your family members,” Mr. Zuckerberg explained in a March 4 blog post. “And now, if you want, you can read what President Obama is saying on the same page as your best friend.”
Facebookers will also notice a “Highlights” section on the far right of the redesigned home page that features specific posts or photos from friends.How does it work? According to a Facebook staffer, “Highlights” is curated in part by a special little feature that popped up about a month ago: the “like” link.
Starting on Feb. 9, users could click on the “like” link if they liked whatever their friend had to share, whether it was a clever status message or a snap of their adorable dog. A tiny thumbs-up sign would appear beneath the post. Like that your friend “is hooked on Breaking Bad”? Click the “like” link, no witty comment necessary. It’s fast, fun and, well, nice.
Start-ups and smaller Web businesses have built their companies on top of that tiny “like” feature, from IAC’s video-sharing site Vimeo to MP3 aggregator the Hype Machine to Enjoysthin.gs, a sharing site built by Ted Roden, formerly of Vimeo and now a “creative technologist” at the New York Times. Elegant blogging platform Tumblr uses it, too. On these sites, “liking” can work as a fun bookmark tool to help users see what their friends are checking out on the ever-expanding Internet. Yet, “likes” do more than add to algorithms. They encourage users to keep adding content, the most valuable currency in the Web 2.0 world, and also to set a friendly tone for interacting with other users.
In other words, the “like” feature makes our Internet world a little bit smaller, and maybe a little bit nicer, too.
“When I got that first ‘like’ on my first video that I ever uploaded, it was really a big deal,” Blake Whitman, Vimeo’s community director, told The Observer. “That excitement is sort of what made me want to keep participating on the site.”
Vimeo embeds the “like” function, indicated by a heart glowing on the upper-right-hand side of the clip, in every video uploaded by their 1.2 million users. “The whole way that Vimeo works is through ‘likes,’” Mr. Whitman said. Once they “like” a video, users can see it posted in their “My Likes” page in their profile. Users can also see who else has “liked” the videos they’ve chosen (time-lapse videos and arty vignettes of city life are popular across the board). Whenever they add someone as a contact, Vimeo automatically subscribes them to not only the videos that that person uploads, but also the videos they “liked.”
“If I add someone as a contact, I’m basically saying that I like them and I’m probably going to like the videos that they like,” Mr. Whitman explained. “It’s sort of an organic recommendation system based on your choices.”
Users can also check out what other people are “liking” in all kinds of ways on the site. In “Vimeo Land,” an application that works as an animated, interactive visualization of who is doing what on the site, cartoon, paper-doll-looking representations of Vimeo users scissor their stiff legs around a landscape peppered with trees, under a big, yellow sun. Girls have ponytails and boys have shaggy ’dos or spiky green crowns. Little hearts bubble above their heads when they like things. Users can click on them to find out which video they “liked” and maybe start connecting with them to see what else they might like. Mr. Whitman said fostering new creative partnerships and friends with the “like” feature is part of Vimeo’s mission.
Mr. Whitman describes “liking” videos as a way to participate in the community—he has “liked” more than 5,000 of them. “We don’t really believe in a rating system, we just believe in giving that person love, literally, by clicking a heart,” he said.
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!