The power of social media likes: why you live for them.

Image by Zeppa

When Facebook created the ability to give people the thumb’s up, online advertising entered a whole new realm of possibilities. Programmer Justin Rosenstein invented the ultimate like and Facebook introduced it in on February 9th, 2009. (It took Mark Z. two years to actually like the feature enough to implement it).

Most users think the like button was designed to express themselves, approve others and strengthen their social network. But it is so much more than that. The like button is one of Facebook’s social plug-ins that can be placed on third-party websites where it collects data for advertisers. Every time you like something or someone, Facebook refines its business model and becomes a little bit more valuable to its advertisers. And you are helping it do that for free, because you like to like. We all do. It is an example of the psychology of reciprocity: if you like them, maybe they’ll like you.

A week after the release of the social plugins, Facebook announced at Web 2.0 in New York that 50,000 websites had installed the features, including the like button. Five months later, the number had increased to 2 million websites. That was in 2010. In May 2018, this was up to 8,4 million websites.

Psychological tricks

There’s solid psychology behind the power of social media likes and a lot has been written about that already. Being liked makes us feel good, even if it is only digitally. As social creatures, we tend to like stuff that other people like. The more likes a post or a page has, the more inclined we are to believe we have to like it too. And there is, of course, the chemical aspect: our love of dopamine.


Hooked on a feeling

“When someone likes an Instagram post or any content that you share, it’s a little bit like taking a drug. As far as your brain is concerned, it’s a very similar experience” says Adam Alter, author of the book Irresistible. Every time we experience something pleasurable like taking a drug or getting a like, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released into our brain. We like it so much, we can’t really get enough of it. And the unpredictability makes everything even more addictive, because if every post got a lot of likes, we’d get bored quickly. As Simon Parkin wrote in 2018 in The Guardian in an article on the neurotransmitter: “This is the secret to Facebook’s era-defining success: we compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.” The methods used by social media companies to keep us engaged, are similar to those used by the gambling industry.

Our human nature fuels the expansion of a multi-million dollar American company. And what do we get in return?

Is it so bad to want to be liked? Of course it isn’t, until it becomes a negative factor in your life. For example, when you start to believe that what your friends post on Facebook is their actual life rather than their best, invented version of themselves. How important are likes to you? Here’s a little test. In April 2019, Instagram announced that it may abandon its ‘likes’ feature all together. No more thumbs up, no more little hearts or stars.

Imagine that has actually come to pass for both Instagram and Facebook. You write your blogs and upload your photo’s like you have always done. Except, now, no one will be able to see how many others have liked your posts. You can, but no one else can. How does that make you feel? And what does that tell you about the power of likes?

Writes. Talks. Works. Remembers the time when email was new. Does not want to go back there.