The Semiotics of Like

We don't do nearly enough to examine what it means when we perform common actions on our social networks. These aren't just guttural, reflexive responses! They are actions with meaning, choices that signify something emotional and expressive, just as surely as our body language does.

Today, Mat Honan on liking everything he saw on Facebook for two days:

I like everything. Or at least I did, for 48 hours. Literally everything Facebook sent my way, I liked—even if I hated it. I decided to embark on a campaign of conscious liking, to see how it would affect what Facebook showed me. I know this sounds like a stunt (and it was) but it was also genuinely just an open-ended experiment. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep it up (48 hours was all I could stand) or what I’d learn (possibly nothing.)

And about six months ago, Pew explored the types of social clusters that define conversation networks on Twitter. These can function as, essentially, a catalog of the different modes of friending and replying on the network.

Pew Twitter network clusters

What's key here is that people are experimenting. When Mat tries a different way of using the Like feature on Facebook, he's testing its boundaries and exploring the meaning of using it in different ways. This is key. And not just because we need to understand the algorithms that shape so much of our lives (though we do), but because it can open up our minds to new ways to express ourselves.

Of course, I have a dog in this fight. I've done experiments about being mindful of whom I retweet and amplify. I'm the guy with a comprehensive theory of favoriting on Twitter. And I spent all day building an app (sign up now for free!) that is about plumbing the depths of this expression.

But even putting aside my own peccadilloes, what seems to be glaringly missing is a broader discussion about the ways we bend and stretch these apps we use every day. Where are the hacks and the cheat codes and the unexpected discoveries? Sure, the billion people who simply see these services as utilities to talk to their friends aren't going to try to break their networks, but those of us who are geeks seem to have settled into a too-comfortable acceptance of what we're given.

How are we going to find out what we really mean when we act if we don't start doing more experiments about how we express ourselves?