Twitter is planning to remove the ability to "like" tweets in a radical move that aims to improve the quality of debate on the social network.
This is an interesting move, if true. The Like — or a variation of it — has become such a standard feature of most social networks that it's hard to imagine life without it. But it could well be one of the most damaging features of the the service. Likes trigger the part of us that craves validations and so, conversely, an absence of them feels like a rejection.
But psychologists have suggested that they may be causing social media addiction among users who crave endorsement from their peers. It has led to a trend where young people will tweet or share something on Instagram and Facebook but will delete it if they have not received enough “likes” shortly after.
I'm a regular user of a service where liking is just private bookmarking. It does, in fact, encourage higher-quality conversations, because if you want someone to know that you appreciate what they posted, you have to write something. And that can lead to some great discussions. It also means that the service has an almost complete absence of "Like-bait" posts. This could be a transformative change to Twitter, and will genuinely start to change the social dynamics of the platform.
Retweets: the context collapse machine
However, I do think that there should be a target higher on Twitter's list: the native retweet. The most recent episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast discussed this at some length, and it's worth thinking about. The problem with the native retweet is that it's easy, and that it rips a tweet from its native context.
In the old days, retweeting was a manual and time-consuming process. You had to copy and paste the tweet, type "RT @username" at the beginning, and often edit the tweet to keep all that within 140 characters. Twitter's native retweet functionality, introduced in late 2009, broke that, and allowed you to propel a tweet forwards with a single click of a button.
That feels great for the person being retweeted, and drives affirmation-seeking behavior just as Likes do, but also creates context collapse, where tweets become detached from the personality and language of both their creator and the social group they hang around with online. That context collapse is the source of so much anger and disagreement on Twitter that killing the native retweet could solve much of Twitter's toxicity problem in one fell stroke.
Twitter has admitted that it is considering the role of the Like button, but cautioned that we shouldn't expect changes soon:
- Quartz has a good piece on how many of the features we associate with Twitter were actually invented by the users
- I wrote about context collapse a few months ago