by anthony on 06/01/11 at 8:58 am
Have you ever learned more about an article or video by reading the comments people leave? Comments used to offer useful, supplementary information that you couldn’t get from the article or video itself. It was a way to learn more about a topic by listening to the different perspectives other people had. Today, the comments on most social websites limit people to two perspectives: ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. This limited view has changed the mentality and behavior of users, and the ‘thumbs up/like’ button is to blame.
The ‘thumbs up’ game
The ‘thumbs up/like’ button is the voting system used to rate user comments on social websites. They’re most notably found on Facebook, YouTube and other social news sites. If someone gives your comment a thumbs up, it means they like what you said. If they give you a thumbs down, it means they don’t like what you said. This voting system has created the ‘thumbs up’ game, where people see who can make the wittiest comment to gain the highest ‘thumbs up’ count. This game might seem innocent and fun, but it has reduced critical thought and discussion to almost nil.
The quintessential example of this is on YouTube. If you look at the comments for YouTube videos, you’ll find that most of them are 3-8 word, one liners that sound like they came out of a bad sitcom. Many of them are senseless, vulgar and add little real value to the content. Some users will even copy and paste a successful comment on one video to another just to increase their ‘thumbs up’ count. Some will outright ask for a ‘thumbs up’ to acknowledge assent. Some will crack a joke about the number of people who disliked a video that most people liked. The ‘thumbs up/like’ button has not just turned YouTube comments into a mindless game, but it has created an endless obsession for ‘thumbs up’ votes.
This game and obsession for the most ‘likes’ degrades the comment quality of a website. It distracts users from discussing the real topics and issues at hand. Instead of reading insightful and original thoughts that teach something new, users read useless comments from people trying to score ‘thumbs up’ points. It has put more importance on voting than discussing.
All emotion, no intellect
Comments have become nothing more than a place for people to vent their emotions. You are given two choices, ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. This format causes users to make simple-minded, emotional comments, where users are quick to express their love or hate. This causes users to constantly judge what they see and read, instead of fully understanding it. Human thinking isn’t limited to just feelings and emotions. It also includes the intellect, which is rarely seen in comments today.
Users also have a tendency to express how they feel about other users. If one person says something another person doesn’t like, a heated argument could start, where insults get thrown back and forth. It becomes personal and more about one’s ego than about the topic of discussion at hand. This not only creates a war of words between people, but it can also create a ‘thumbs up’ war that causes users to abuse the ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ button. The ‘thumbs up’ button would be more useful if it was used to call-out important comments that add to the discussion. And the ‘thumbs down’ button would be more useful if it was used to hide comments that don’t add to the discussion. However, the buttons are used to promote the silly and witty comments, which might amuse people, but it doesn’t challenge them to think about the topics and issues at hand.
Encourages groupthink, discourages individuality
The ‘thumbs up/like’ button can discourage users with different, unconventional perspectives from leaving their comments. The fear of getting judged and receiving ‘thumbs down’ votes by the opposing crowd might make them feel like it’s better not to say anything at all. Thus, the people who are likely to comment are those who tend to agree with the crowd. This creates groupthink, discourages individuality and prevents unconventional thinking from appearing in the comments.
Since users see the ‘thumbs up’ button as the symbol of approval, it makes them even more docile to follow what everyone else agrees with. The ‘thumbs up’ votes dictates what type of comments will get noticed. This tempts users to leave comments that resemble the most liked comment to get their comment noticed. This prevents people from leaving comments that offer a unique perspective. Instead, every other comment is either a witty remark or one that parrots how everyone else feels. The result is a group of people who think and feel the same.
Good for marketers, bad for consumers?
The ‘thumbs up/like’ button isn’t only used on a few websites. It’s starting to spread quickly to a plethora of websites. This is due to Facebook’s feature that allows anyone to embed the ‘Like’ button on their website. So far, over 50,000 websites have adopted Facebook’s ‘Like’ button. Google has also started their own version of the ‘Like’ button, called the +1 button, used for rating search results. How will this affect the way users perceive web content? Will it help or hurt them?
Another question to ask is how will this affect marketers and consumers? Surely, marketers will use this information to market products to consumers. By knowing what people like, it makes their job easier. It’s safe to say that marketers are liking the ‘thumbs up/like’ button, but is this good for consumers? Should consumers worry that marketers will use this information to market products and advertisements to them? It’s been said that the ‘thumbs up/like’ button is to help users find the best content. But who really benefits from it in the end?
It’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure. The ‘thumbs up/like’ button is dumbing us down. It has killed critical thinking and meaningful discussions in the comments. The idea of recognizing important comments does have value. But the concept of recognizing them through ‘thumbs ups’ and ‘likes’ is changing our behavior in a totally unexpected way.