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Likability: Revisiting The Psychology of Liking

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Have you Liked anything today? A year ago, I wrote about the psychology behind Liking, noting that

  • Liking a status update on Facebook could help reinforce relationships
  • and Liking articles and media on the web could help build online reputations

Liking shows that we’re paying attention, and allows us to be recognized as a participant within our networks—regardless of the degree of connectivity we share with others. We Like to be noticed. And over time, our Likes reveal a noticeable pattern to other members of our network that generates a degree of authenticity. (Our Likes are also enticing to data-miners but most people are likely more concerned with the perception held by others within their network than the information that is being collected about them by marketing agencies.) To this end, Liking has grown into a valuable social currency; not only is it important to Like, but it’s also important to be Likable.

The popularity of the Like feature derives in part from the visibility it affords the Liker. But this visibility impacts the poster as well: There is a status to sharing things that are Likable. It positions the poster in-the-know and make them someone to watch. Liking that witty comment confirms the ideas and recommendations of the poster—but with time, it also places pressure on them to maintain that standard of interaction. They’re known for those snarky one-liners during awards shows, or the passive aggressive commentary toward fellow patrons or commuters, or the late night stream-of-consciousness. They’re known for being “in” and on it because they’ve got just the thing to say about breaking news, a particular hobby, or even parenting.

In the realm of online recommendations, there is a certain power to being Likable. It means that people pay attention when you post and that what you post matters. There is a fair share of posts about lunch and walking the dog, but with the rising awareness about the visibility of digital profiles, I’d argue that more posts are curated than we think. And if we’re thinking twice about posting those questionable party pictures (and we are, then we’re also thinking twice about how we’re phrasing some of our commentary—and we’re also thinking about how we dole out those Likes. It’s a lot to think about, but in a space where our relationships depend on what we can offer by way of information and ideas and distractions, it’s an important factor in determining our place within our networks. That is not to say that everyone is in the running to be Likable, but that once Likability is attained—once there is a consistent showing of Likability—it’s hard to give up. Yes, being Likable is addictive: It reinforces our sense of importance in a space where we have to work doubly hard to construct ourselves.

The acquisition of this social currency requires a conscious balancing between tone and content because too much of any one thing quickly becomes boring and unworthy of being Liked. Posters feel pressured to connect the online world with the offline world. They must interject interesting real world experiences—whether it relates to their own life or stems from pop-culture—into their online communications. This paves the way for updates about children, commentary about commutes or office experiences, and musings about product launches, politics, and items on the evening news. It’s new, it’s different, it’s delivered with a healthy mix of wit and sarcasm and genuine concern. Likable posters bear the expectation of being plugged in and representing a human response to events around them. It remains to be seen whether this is an identity that can be resumed. Can the poster still attract Likes after a period of silence? Or is the poster’s authority compromised?

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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