What is the value of ‘likes’?

We’ve lived with the words ‘like’ and its hateful neologism ‘unlike’ since Facebook introduced it almost five years ago. It’s become a staple of social media sites. We’ve all-grown used to seeing — and using — the like button to express delight in a post, but what does it really mean? We’ll explore the use of ‘like’ – Jon hopes he’ll convinced you to remove it, while Luke tries to defend it.

I hate ‘likes’ – Jon’s view

“Catastrophic crush kills 2 colleagues” screams the intranet headline. 2 likes. This ubiquitous interactive feature is on your intranet, most enterprise social networks and external social sites too, but what does the employee mean when they used it? Context and meaning are lost as soon as the like button is hit and this is what makes it a dangerous tool.

What do you mean, ‘like’?

At the heart of the problem is that liking something on your intranet can have countless different interpretations and where such terrible, contradictory ambiguity exists, interpreting it is very difficult. Difficult and pointless. Think about the last time you ‘liked’ a friends status on Facebook: did you like it, or did you use it to convey some other meaning in the hope that the author understood?

On your intranet, the same issue exists. The article accumulates ‘likes’, but what did they mean?

  • The reader actually likes it: Really? can they really like the fact that two people died? Maybe they really hated those two people. Maybe they caused it! Is this gloating in the face of a tragedy? Call those two people into a meeting with HR immediately please!
  • They like the title: Yea, pithy title. Nice alliteration.
  • The reader fancies the author: The ‘like’ is a form of flattery. I like you, I like everything you do. Drink next week maybe?
  • The reader appreciates the sensitive writing style: Horrible story with a really horrible picture, but what a splendidly well-written article.
  • They’re sympathetic: In the absence of a ‘Ooo’ button, this is as close as I can get to digital sympathy.

Attempting to interpret is a facile as the button itself.

It’s like, shorthand?

When we use the like button in social media, it really means “I’ve seen you’ve posted” with no particular emotion conveyed. It’s the new ‘poke’, a digital wave from the other side of the road as you pass in your car. On the intranet, it’s more about the liker than the likee (gah, I hate myself for using such a word). The like says “look at me”.

‘Likes’ as a measure of quality

We’ve long advocated taking a fresh look at intranet statistics, proposing that managers move along from qualitative stats such as page views into a more qualitative dashboard more reflecting the outcomes of the intranet. Are ‘likes’ an example of such a measure? The answer is maybe and therefore no: if you can’t be 100% certain why an article or page has attracted its likes, you cannot use it as a measure of quality.

I like likes, so how do I make them work?

We need to look at making likes work or removing them from the intranet. Here are a few ways in which you might be able to rescue the situation.

  1. Add other buttons: Adding a ‘dislike’ and ‘meh’ button will give employees slightly more meaningful choices
  2. Add direction: Give employees some direction as to what like actually means.
  3. Add context: Only allow employees to like (or dislike) something when they comment on an article. That will mean you have context to the data and may just encourage employees to comment more.

I like ‘likes’ – Luke’s view

Jon has said why he hates likes. How he can’t see any value in them and how they can only be improved by expanding options and providing more meaningful context. I hope you – dear readers – are smart enough to realise this is bobbins and short sighted poppycock.

We have to accept that ‘the like’ has come to be because it manages to offer the ‘seller’ the ‘customer’ and ‘the system’ real value. Moreover, the real power of its value is in its simplicity and the breadth of its meaning.

Who cares what like means anyway?

The crux of Jons argument is that a like doesn’t mean that someone likes something. In fact – it’s not really possible to know what someone means by the act of ‘liking’. This is a perfectly valid point and entirely true but, Jon has missed an important point – one that he has actually made himself in the past, That its not about the outputs, it’s about the outcomes. We need to forget about measuring the number of likes itself and focus on what behaviors the like drives. What is the outcome of a like?

On facebook the outcome  is the most successful social media platform in the known universe and a mechanism that’s changed the face of marketing and created massive new businesses.  But what about on the intranet?

What could like mean?

Firstly, lets take a more agnostic look at what the act of liking might really mean – Jon and I both agree there are plenty of potential meanings.

  • That I like this thing
  • I want to show the poster I have read it
  • I want to show the poster empathy
  • I want to endorse the poster or the message
  • A quick way of sharing the item with other in my network
  • A way of bookmarking
  • I am interested in more of this kind of thing

Generally a like means…

All of these possibilities are forms of engagement and ways that ‘the system’ learns more about the person.  It’s a very easy, low barrier to entry way for someone to tell the system the kind of things they will engage with.

In the corporate world, the things you want on your social intranet (especially when you first get it going) are:

  • Adoption
  • Engagement
  • Relevance

They are all interlinked, but can be summarised as giving people the information relevant to them, that helps them do their jobs as best they can, make them more engaged in the tool, the organisation and their colleagues, and create a system where everyone adds value through full adoption.

Likes are an essential tool to make this happen.  They are meaningless enough for someone to feel safe about ‘being seen to like’ something. Yes they indicate user interaction, offer social proof to others that the tool is being used, that their content is being read and appreciated. And they give information into the system about what kind of content people want more off.  Whether that be information to the search tool to optimise results, or information to others creating content to ‘create more stuff like the stuff that got liked’.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

While every feature we add to our intranet must have purpose, it doesn’t need to be defined to an exacting degree of measurability. Its ok to just have features that people seem to like and use – if they drive the outcomes you desire for your organisation.

While we need to remember that Intranets are not internet sites, and that we shouldn’t just lift ideas from the web – we do need to recognise that there are some concepts that they have got right – probably though expensive and tiresome research. The ‘like’ is one of these concepts – whose power is in its simplicity and its non-descript meaning but universal understanding.

Is Jon right? Or is Luke right? Tell us what you think? Have you created a solution for the ‘like’ that you can share?


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There are 18 comments

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  1. Andrew Gilleran

    Sorry Luke, have to go with Jon. Say you posted on Facebook that your beloved dog died. How can that be ‘liked’???? On an intranet if a company posts a news story with bad news like job losses, how can ‘like’ that? OK, OK, I’m being very negative. From an intranet editor’s perspective, you would be happy if people are engaging with your content and that is a good thing. But that ‘Like’ button is not one size fits all especially on an intranet.

    • @lukemepham

      The point is Andrew that it really doesn’t matter wether you understand how it can be liked. If you are launching an ESN you need people to engage – and people need quick, easy, harmless, fairly meaningless ways to get started. Likes fit the bill. Are you really taking Jons view of the social media overlord Mr Zuckerburg? 😉

    • Tony

      Good point, how can you like it when someones dog dies…

      The newest behavior is that Likes are used for when you actually like something.

      When you don’t like something, or feel ‘other’ – and want to engage, you comment. Likes are for liking, ignore or comment for everything else.


  2. Nikos A.

    I don’t have a like feature yet but it is something I am looking into. I think it makes more sense to use thumbs up/thumbs down option (similar to comments in youtube) or couple like with “insightful” and “I read it” buttons.

    Ideally, it should be something that authors will be able to turn off if they wish to.

    If there is a message from the CEO there is no point in having likes or thumbs up. Most people will like it (unless he is announcing layoffs) even if the content is not mind-blowing.

    Nice article!

    • @DigitalJonathan

      I feel exactly the same way about ‘star-ratings’ and thumbsup/down. As @chris_pb has said on Twitter, “If their purpose is unclear, so then is their value”.

      We either need to add definition or remove the feature.

      • @lukemepham

        Fuzzy purpose is perfect tho! You must be a real bore to socialise with “I’m not answering that questions because Im unsure on its purpose. It doesn’t meet the defined objective of this social interaction” tsk!

  3. Peter Richards

    Its hard to avoid the painful puns commenting on this piece. Its resembled a never ending dad joke.

    I would like to believe that there is value in obtaining multiple “Likes” for a piece of information with the optimistic view that the likes relate only to the value of the information.

    I am however aware that the rating may only be because your best friend wrote it or you enjoyed the silly picture of a dog wearing a hat that was used.

    Due to the wide range of reasons an Intranet user may “Like” an item, I think that there is minimal business value garnered from these functions and the “Likes” are more of a novelty engagement option.

  4. Rebecca Leppington

    Is Recommend is a good alternative for an intranet? It works in lots of business scenarios – recommend new corporate plan published, updated expenses policy, cake sale in the basement at 2pm etc.

    • @DigitalJonathan

      Recommend is an interesting idea. My first reaction was ‘yes – like’ (no pun), but does it work for all occasions? Maybe we need thanks/no thanks, valuable/pointless.

      I’m tempted to suggest that the only way through this is a star-rating on 2-3 elements: topic, importance, relevance. How would that work for you?

      • Rebecca Leppington

        Too complex, many people would be put off bothering. The beauty of the Like button is its simplicity.

        I think that with company info, you might just want to indicate that you think something has merit or is worth knowing about. The trouble with Like is that it is a positive statement – would you want to like an announcement of redundancies? Similarly, ratings appear to indicate how good you think something is, when you might just want to indicate you think people should be aware of it.

        Maybe an ‘Interesting’ button instead – you can take that either way!

        • Nikos A.

          I agree with Rebecca.

          Even though the ‘like’ as a word doesn’t really work for business purposes, we should try and harness its power which lies in simplicity.

          Maybe we should look at the +1 of Google+ either in the same form or as a “I read it” button. And then the article will say “read by 252”, which will indicate popularity. And then have another button saying “Recommend” (or something similar) to indicate quality. In my mind you can either click one or the other, but both count towards the popularity index.

          What do you think?

          • Lukemepham

            So we agree a simple single button option is best, but we don’t like the word like because its ‘not businessy enough?’. The term like is so well established and recognised – using another term would change its dynamic. I say It sounds like the world outside of internal comms has learned what clicking a like button means – stop over analysing the language and go with the masses on this one

          • Absolutely Staggered

            “The ‘like’ word doesn’t apply for business purposes.”

            Why try to deny your employees their humanity?
            Why tell them their nature is “inappropriate for business”?
            All business is done by people, and all people without exception will like or dislike everything they encounter to some degree. And you claim that “doesn’t work”?

            I guess I’m curious to know why some arbitrary sense of “professionalism” is more important to anyone than finding ways for “people to interact in a way that benefits all involved”. Which is the definition of the word “business” by the way.

          • Nikos A.

            @ABSOLUTELY STAGGERED: You have a fair point, but I think we are talking about two different things here. ‘Like’ doesn’t represent the humane aspect of your employees same way as ‘Recommend’ doesn’t represent the professional aspect.

            The reason I, and a few others, agree on the inappropriateness of ‘like, is simply because of practical reasons.

            First, it is very unclear what is means. Even if we forget about measuring popularity/success for a second, it is annoying to have button that when you click on it, as an end user, you don’t see what that action means.

            Then, in a professional world people will be happy to work for their company or they want to appear this way to their colleagues. Therefore, they might feel obliged to Like everything, as ‘not like’ means you are not happy with something the company does or represents. This doesn’t apply to every employee or company, but it is enough if some see it this way. In other words,

            “All business is done by people, and all people without exception will like or dislike everything they encounter to some degree. And you claim that “doesn’t work”?”

            Yes, because people behave differently depending on the environment they are in.

  5. Rebecca Leppington

    I agree with your summing up, Luke, but I still think a different label is needed. Its not that it is not ‘businessy’ enough – it’s that it is not an appropriate sentiment. It is about indicating something is worth reading, not saying you like it.

    Besides, the masses may know what Like is, but even they complain about it at times – I’ve seen friends apologising for Liking sad posts but just wanting to indicate their support, and asking why there isn’t a Dislike button.

    I do work in a child protection organisation though, so I just know the ear ache I would get if I asked people to Like some of our content. I guess it could be different for other organisations.

    Nikos – we can get popularity from user analytics though – page views, average time spent on page, unique visitors (if you are lucky). What is important is whether people think it is worth reading or not.

    I think any negative feedback (contructive criticism) about intranet content should go directly to the content owner or in a Comments box.

    • @DigitalJonathan

      Politely, I disagree that you can get ‘popularity’ from the user analytics you describe Rebecca. (Off topic warning): page views shows you how many times the page was viewed. You run into all sorts of trouble if you attempt to interpret as anything but what it is.

  6. Big Mike

    Both great viewpoints, both very valid. Thanks for a good read.

    On the topic of people “liking” a post containing upsetting news, I always assume that the person clicking Like is saying, “I like that you have communicated this, thank you.”

    If the ‘liker’ really meant to say “HECK YEAH, I’M GLAD ALL THOSE PEOPLE DIED” then I would expect they would leave a comment so that nobody would misinterpret them.

  7. Should Your Intranet Be More Like Facebook? -

    […] Finally, some social network conventions are ambiguous and of limited usefulness in a work setting. Take the action of “liking” a status update or giving a thumbs up. Intranetizen has rightfully asked: what does “liking” actually mean? Is it useful at all? (Read the debate and share your two cents here) […]

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