In 2012, Robin Sloan created a very cute little app called “Fish“, a tap essay exploration of what it means to love something on the Internet (and well worth 10 minutes of your time to download and read it). Sloan argues that when you really love something, you pay it repeated attention; revisiting it, and noticing or re-appreciating more details with each visit. Loving a thing – as for loving another person – means that you want to keep returning to it and spending time with it. Whatever the thing might be – a poem, a song, a film, a brilliantly written essay – it’s had such a compelling effect on you that it’s more than just a glimmer of passing gold in the stream, it’s something you want to catch and keep.
And in the era of social media, it might also be something you want to share with others.
What is love?
So how does loving something work online? It seems to be both a question of behaviour – how we signify special affection for a particular item of content over another – but also a challenge for technology – how we save and revisit cherished digital content.
Like, like, like /= love
On Facebook, a like is relatively cheap currency. Yes, a like has social value – it can indicate agreement, shared celebration, a public social declaration of approval, even that you appreciate someone’s humour – but once you’ve liked something, it’s often quickly forgotten and you’ve moved onto the next thing. Likes on Facebook are so lightweight in terms of your relationship with the specific item that you’ve liked, that you don’t even receive notifications on that post if anyone else interacts with it. They’re a fleeting interaction, a passing fancy. Notifications only start once you’ve left a comment.
Furthermore, there’s no easy way of going back and revisiting what you’ve liked; these momentary connections are only enduring love in the eyes of the algorithms that try to predict what you might like next…
Likes gain weight when more people pile on the praise, shooting the liked item up the newsfeeds of friends, but this doesn’t mean any individual *loved* the post, just that the peer group as a whole thinks it has some social value (and we’ve heard plenty in recent weeks about how Facebook is influencing this).
Rather like the boyfriend who brings you flowers, charms your parents and didn’t forget your birthday, this type of “social” content might be ticking some of the right boxes, but that doesn’t guarantee it’s setting your heart alight and that you’ll care about it 6 months from now.
The read later button that Facebook recently introduced may help with the bookmarking aspect of saving content to read later, but it still doesn’t allow you to star something to indicate both that it is worth saving and that it’s good.
Maybe you have to take the content off the platform for that because, once found, loving something becomes less of a social phenomenon and more of a personal one?
Favourites on Twitter also don’t solve the love problem. It’s not that they don’t have complex social meanings, but, as per Facebook likes, the action alone is not meant to be an enduring bookmark for the user. I have over 11k favourites – it’s never going to be an effective way for me to find that blog post about that thing.
Likes on Instagram are less complex – you’re just showing that you appreciate a photo, but it’s still very difficult to go back through the list of photos that you’ve liked and find a specific one.
Google+ offered the prospect that when you gave something a +1, you would be able to go back and find everything that you’d given a +1 to. Except that Google+ hasn’t really caught on as a competitor to Facebook and Twitter – without the stream, there’s not much fishing to be done in the first place.
Curation for your infatuation
So what to do about both indicating superlative content and saving it for later? Is the answer to both the social challenge and the technical challenge to be found in curation?
Making desert island lists of favourite movies or albums or meals has long been a fun game to play – imagining shrinking your record collection down into a few choice samples that you’d be forced to listen to forever is certainly one way to test how much you really like something. And continuing the obsession with lists, there’s now a trend for bloggers to create round-ups of the best posts from the past week (See the URLs of wisdom, for one!). But these are mostly valuable when a) you share similar tastes as the person doing the curating and b) their reading habits allow them to continue to identify new and interesting content rather than relying only on the same sources every week. Even then, it’s debatable that there are going to be 20 things you really love in a given week – to the extent that you’d want to keep going back to those items.
A new network being developed by Atlantic Media, called This, is based on the premise that each user only shares one link each day to something that they think is really valuable. But how safe would you play it if you could only cast a single daily vote that was meant to indicate all of your tastes?
At least for the major social networks that I’ve considered here, finding content that you really love doesn’t seem to be the point. Social networks are more about promoting repeat visits to the site rather than to individual items of content, and so relationships with the content are encouraged to be fleeting and news-like. Tech-wise, most attention is paid to the upfront features that determine the visibility of that content, such as newsfeed algorithms or retweets, rather than encouraging archiving and making chosen items of content accessible later.
So does this mean the options to develop a more in-depth relationship to online content are skewed against us? Or just that we need to think more deliberately about how we separate out our likes from our loves, acknowledging that perhaps the things we love require us to create a separate place away from those we merely like?