The Accidental Invention of the Like
In 2005, Rob Manuel had a problem. Four years earlier, after the dizzying rise and crash of the dotcom bubble, he’d started a site called B3ta.com with his friends Denise Wilton and Cal Henderson. Like many post-crash projects, it was an attempt to build something more human and, well, funnier than the pompous, shiny-suited fantasies of dotcom-era startups.
At its heart, B3ta was a newsletter and a message board, two technologies that harked back to the pre-web communities of the early 1990s. B3ta was a place to share jokes, often in response to weekly image challenges that encouraged the kind of mashup amateur meme aesthetic that is now commonplace. It quickly generated a dedicated community of creative talent, sharing everything from simple image collages to fantastically surreal animations and parodies of art history.
By 2005, the B3ta community had grown so large that the simple message board–style front page was getting difficult to navigate. Manuel needed a way to curate the content so it was easier to find the good stuff.
It turns out this was a problem that a lot of early-2000s web communities were trying to solve. The mysterious FilePile, launched in 2000 and a big influence on B3ta, had plus and minus buttons for up- or downvoting content. Digg.com launched in December 2004 with a simple “Digg” button to rate links. But even before FilePile and Digg, sites like Hot or Not (the inspiration for Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook project FaceMash) used buttons to measure users’ approval. Manuel was still hand-curating B3ta and saw these voting buttons as a potential solution:
“I needed something to cope with the large amount of images and stories being submitted. It was exhausting to try and read it all, to moderate the site and find content for the front page and newsletter — so it seemed an obvious enough move to allow users to vote. My thought was that I wanted a halfway house of editorial control. I get the final say, but user suggestions could guide me to the better content.”
Manuel emailed his developer to suggest adding the feature and initially wanted to call it a “wooyay” button, fitting in with the kind of informal language the community used on the site. It’s not clear now why B3ta decided to go with “like” instead of wooyay, but regardless, by November 2005, B3ta had launched its version: a button reading “I like this!”