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[Illustration by Damian Yerrick; Creative Commons license]

By David Ryan Polgar

Everyone wants to be liked on Facebook. Similar to Sally Field’s famous speech at the Oscars (“You like me!”), the very concept of being liked can offer a sense of affirmation. It feels good to see that people care about your life or your commentary.

This, however, has led to the maddening pursuit of creating popular content. In an act of reverse-engineering, we are altering our conversation to fit the rapidly changing ways of the audience and medium. It is generally accepted that a social media audience will not read anything of great length, so posters have learned to become overly concise—often to the point to being trite.

In a world flooded with so many possible links to click, posters have learned to offer somewhat misleading titles in order to grab attention. For example, instead of posting “Check out my video from speech class about global warming” it would be changed to “This Shocking Video Will Change. Your. Life.” It’s called click-bait, and it happens because distracted users bite. (There is now even a parody site of click-bait articles, called Clickhole.)

Right now we put a great deal of focus on the number of likes that a post gets. We sometimes wrongly assume that there is a direct correlation between quality content and its popularity quantified through its number of likes.

The truth is more nuanced.

Why we like content is often influenced by the behavior of our friends, our relationship to the poster, the image we are trying to project online, and more. It would be nice to think that we aren’t influenced by the behavior of others, and that content becomes popular based solely on its merit, but our behavior clearly shows otherwise.

Here are FIVE types of Facebook Likes:

1. Genuine Like:

When you authentically connect with a post or picture, you may genuinely want to express your gratitude or approval. Similar to giving a thumbs up to a person holding a street sign you agreed with, you are giving you social media like without any ulterior motive.

2. Sympathy Like:

Although Facebook is setup to be egalitarian, some people seem to get a whole lot more likes than others. Occasionally you may see a currently un-liked post hanging in your feed that seems awfully lonely and sad. Nobody likes to be ignored, and an un-liked post seems like the wallflower hanging out by the punch at a high school prom. You invite it to dance by liking it.

3. Reciprocity Like (social media backscratching):

Despite Facebook’s egalitarian vibe, there is a constant shuffling of the social order. Likes can be a backscratching tool where one clicks the thumbs up based on an unsaid backscratching understanding, instead of a genuine appreciation of the post.

4. Bandwagon Like:

Facebook and other forms of social media prominently list how many likes something. Despite are assumptions that we are not influenced by the actions of others, science has clearly proven otherwise. A heavily liked post or photo is more apt to be liked in the future based solely on the initial popularity. Its display of being liked colors how we see it. This is why some companies pay for fake likes—popularity often leads to more popularity through the bandwagon effect.

5. Kiss-Up Like:

We’re all equal on Facebook; some of us are just more equal than others. Facebook allows us to rub digital shoulders with people we may admire or are trying to impress. Sending a Kiss-Up Like allows us to position, however briefly, our name in their social media orbit.

Video discussion of the FIVE types of Facebook Likes