The wrong case against the ‘Dislike’ button

Whether Facebook was seriously considering the pairing of a “Dislike” button with its now-ubiquitous “Like” button will probably remain an unknown, but it’s a reasonable assumption that a social network whose business model is built upon building positive momentum, would work against itself if it were to deploy a tool for diffusing positive momentum.  Who would want to advertise on a system where the market’s response could become negative?

Let’s play with that thought for a while.  If we truly value public opinion, then whether something is genuinely disliked should be as important an issue as whether it is genuinely liked.  However, in any social network where there are polarizing, opposing influences (take, for example, Reddit) the opinions of users can become galvanized.

As a result, the validity of any overwhelming response one way or the other to an issue, a person, a song, a product, or a brand, will always come into question.  The success of anything would always come with a question mark.

Facebook’s “Like” may not necessarily be an indicator of whether anything in particular is appreciated.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Users want to be associated with items or people of interest, in order to make Facebook functional for them.  And that association becomes public, to the extent that it matters to any member of the public, which on average is not very much at all.

In throwing cold water on the idea of “Dislike” during a Facebook town hall meeting, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the altruistic approach.  “Some people... want to be able to say that a thing isn’t good,” Zuckerberg was quoted by the “I.T.” publication The Irish Times as telling the crowd, “and that’s not something that we think is good for the world.  So we’re not going to build that.”

Now, let’s play with that idea for a moment.  If Facebook truly values the public’s opinion, as it has already indicated it does with respect to “Like,” then why filter that opinion when turns negative?  Zuckerberg goes so far as to place himself in the guise of Dr. Ivan Pavlov, not just by explicitly stating that the proper emotion that people should be displaying is empathy, but by implying that Facebook is a massive behavioral purification device cleansing users of all but the proper emotions at the right times.

The realistic, and probably correct, response to the question, “Why not ‘Dislike?’” was that you can’t monetize such a thing.  You can pretend that it will eventually be monetized in order to generate investment, as has certain other networks whose members will inevitably vote me down just for having said such anathema.  But as you’d think Facebook would have learned full well by now, the promise of future monetization is only effective as a short-term investment, never a long-term business plan.

“Like’s” simplicity, which Zuckerberg praised, is that it effectively masks the alternative.  Presumably one could say “dislike” could be ascertained by measuring how much an item was viewed or shared compared to how few “Likes” it received.  Except the former variable is not public knowledge.  By painting everything with a uniform smiley-face, we actually avoid the topic of whether, by associating oneself with a thing, one means to praise or appreciate it.

“Dislike” would remove that mask, and call into question the validity of being “liked.”  A person making an influential comment may generate a wealth of “likes,” but a well-staffed opposition may be capable of concocting a sizable counter-strike.  With each person only being worth one point, the “likes” and “dislikes” of all the various “sock-puppets” (accounts that don’t represent actual people) would come into play.  The best anyone could hope for, if she truly were influential, would be to emerge from the melee with an even score.

Maybe Zuckerberg’s right when he says that would be bad for the world.  But it would be worse for Facebook, because in the act of converting absolutely every online interaction into a popularity contest, the public image of every brand choosing to roll the dice under such a polarized system, would be at risk.  Someone would compile the Top 10 Most Disliked list of every politician, every TV show, every dead celebrity, every paleontological era, and every low-fat margarine.  How would people, brands, political parties, and technology manufacturers behave if everything they did registered on a real-time needle of public opinion?

Put another way, if life were truly democratic, how would we react when people at large willingly choose the wrong things?