Gone fishing – liking versus loving content online

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.

How do you "heart" content online?  Image from Flickr user UnaMamaSnob: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mammasnob/8332953919/

How do you “heart” content online?
Image from Flickr user UnaMamaSnob: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mammasnob/8332953919/

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?

Still looking…?

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?



10 thoughts on “Gone fishing – liking versus loving content online

  1. There are number of things going on here. One is the collector’s completionist impulse which turns a set of things to keep into an unmanagable heap. Another is the granularity and semantics of loving: does one want an abiding relationship with a feed, or a post, or perhaps even a comment, or a choice quote? It would also be regrettable to fail to find on open, standards-based solution: RSS feeds are an open standard for ‘loves’, but not all things have feeds, and the keepers of proprietary walled gardens don’t necessarily want their content to leave their control. Browsers have long implemented bookmarks, but their systems are not interoperable.

    Some sites and services do recognise the need for a separation between evanescent liking and abiding loving. Reddit distinguishes between voting and saving, and allows both posts and comments to be voted on and saved; but trying to find anything without curational effort is not easy. A more specialised social network I use (Strava – http://www.strava.com), draws a clear line between the incoming torrent of activities I can like and comment on, and the still pull of curated routes I want to keep going back to. There is still scope for more organisation though – few sites allow the tagging and search over the accumulated hoard of bookmarked items we build up.

    It seems to me that the hard limit that defines the problem is time. No matter how much we like something, or how many things we have interacted with, we all have the same number of hours to allocate to our interests in a day. The proportion of this limited resource that we choose to devote to any one thing is the most sincere and honest signal of our affections. The only system I ever used that reflected this constraint was my collection of CDs, when they were still a thing I used: my ten or so current favourites were always stacked by the side of the player, a natural reflection of the time I was choosing to allocate to them.


    • Time is, as always, a challenge with any kind of curation. And the CD analogy is a good one, because even if you create a list of favourite things, it’s likely that over time some fall out of favour and you’d want to remove them to make way for others.

      And your point about tagging is also something I’d like to see. It would be so useful to be able to tag tweets so that I could search and find them later. I guess it’s possible to do this manually by exporting them, but wouldn’t it be nice to have these extra features more closely integrated with the original networks?


  2. It was nice chatting about this yesterday, and I agree that it is an unsolved problem. The inherent drive for social network to make you come back to its new content makes saving loved things a harder problem.

    Perhaps there is a value in app like Pocket that is only for tits-bits that we love. It could be something that after pocketing and reading, I choose to put in my “loved stuff” app. The only solution that comes close to that right now is Evernote, where you can create a #reallyloved tag for things you want to preserve forever.

    Alex’s point about physically curating objects is a nice one. Perhaps there are things on social media that are worthy of our time to be turned into physical objects. And such a method would limit the number of “things” you will end up really loving. In the end, from those favourited tweets and liked posts there would only be a handful few that you love.


    • Yeah, agreed on the “turning it into something” idea. One of the things I was musing about before I wrote this was whether there’s an existing tool which allows you to create a scrapbook of things you like e.g. a quote from an article, a photo, a cartoon and then displays them to you occasionally so you can revisit them. Rather like a multimedia rotating screensaver, perhaps? The idea would be to show the quote, but then be able to link back to the original article so if you wanted to read more context, that would be possible too.

      I know that Timehop is doing the regurgitating content thing on Facebook now, but that’s more random. It would be nice if you could choose what goes into the vault first!


  3. 1. I tend to remember quite strongly the things I really, really like.
    2. Usually I share them on Twitter
    3. I can generally remember roughly what I said about them (not always and sometimes I have to go on a bit of a hunt).
    4. Within the last year / 18 mo Twitter’s own search got MUCH better and vastly more comprehensive (it started off pretty good, got horribly bad then got better, so I shan’t assume I can permanently rely on it but will keep my fingers crossed).

    This means I can pretty much find anything I’ve ever tweeted that I found particularly interesting by searching for it on Twitter.com (the browser version), using from:jobrodie keyword – it’s rarely failed me (unless I can’t remember the right keyword, or the tweet just doesn’t appear, in which case I ask or give up).

    Often when I find what I was looking for I retweet it again, which I suppose increases the chances that I’ll find it again in future when it pops into my head.

    So this means I don’t really need a system because Twitter search does the work for me. You can use the Advanced Search function to restrict it to a particular time point too, otherwise who sent it (from:blah) or / and to whom it was sent (to:blah or @blah) pretty much does the trick. I’m glad I’ve been so profligate in sharing stuff I’ve really liked 🙂 This is also one of the reasons why I like comment RTs as that way I can search for the tweet in my own timeline and don’t have to remember who originally sent it, but often I just forget to do that!

    It’s not perfect (I didn’t find my first tweet in June 2008 yet I know what’s in its text) but it’s really very good, or at least sufficient.

    It’s roughly 70% Twitter search being ace and 30% me having a sufficiently good memory to pin it down.



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