In August, Matt Honan wrote an interesting article in Wired about his social networking experiment. He clicked on all Facebook's "Like" buttons everywhere for two days. It ruined his life. Then, Elan Morgan wrote in Medium about a similar experiment. He didn't click on any Facebook "Like" buttons for two straight weeks. Being curious, I decided to perform my own experiment.
Like Morgan, I decided not to click on any Facebook "Like" buttons for two weeks. That meant avoiding both buttons on posts and links in comments. It also meant not clicking on any "Like" buttons on Websites around the Internet that displayed them.
I use Facebook for personal posts, and to supplement this blog since many readers use Facebook. So, for my experiment I also decided not to click on any "Like" buttons nor links on the I've Been Mugged page on Facebook.
To start, I announced my experiment to my Facebook "friends," which includes friends, acquaintances, family, coworkers, former classmates, and former coworkers. An announcement seemed wise since some of them pursue "Likes" passionately. Many of those former coworkers also work in the digital advertising industry. I asked for their understanding and patience during my informal week-long experiment. My August 17 status message on Facebook:
"Notice for all my Facebook friends: during the next week, I will perform an experiment on Facebook by NOT clicking on any "Like" buttons on posts ,comments, photos, videos, and pages. I want to see how this changes my experience with Facebook. You'll probably see me write comments more. So, you have been warned. Please don't feel offended."
Nobody complained. Several wrote comments, which included predictions:
"You will most likely not be bombarded with advertisements or "links you may like". Good!"
"Love to hear your methodology. Are you studying adds to your feed by the hour? something else?"
And, some shared tips about how they deal with advertising on Facebook (link added):
"I don't see ads because I use adblock. So I really don't know what they'd be trying to sell me."
I used the Web version of Facebook. For a couple years, I used the mobile version on a Windows phone until I accidentally broke the screen. The mobile version was fun for a while, but the novelty soon wore thin. Spending $10 to $15 monthly for a data plan mostly for Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and IMDB searches seemed an expensive indulgence. So, when the phone broke, I took that as a sign, ditched the mobile apps, and returned to the fuller Web version. While mobile apps are convenient, they are still pieces of a site. I prefer the entire experience, not pieces. About the only pieces I enjoy are Reese's Pieces. Maybe Facebook should have named its app "Facebook Pieces," but that is a discussion for another time.
I use Facebook to post and view articles, status messages, photos, and videos. I have family members who post plenty of photos. Plenty. For privacy and security, I don't play Facebook games nor apps, having years ago disabled all Facebook apps in my account settings. (To learn about how to use Facebook securely, there are plenty of posts in this blog. Follow any of the links in this post. In the right column, enter "Facebook" in the search mechanism, or select "Social Networking" in the tag cloud.) Facebook has made some stunning privacy missteps and reversals about how much of your data apps harvest. And, there's more about apps privacy here.
Test Goals and Methodology
I performed this test to see how my experience with Facebook might change. Would Facebook display different content? If so, what might that different content be? Posts by friends, ads, the pages I follow, or what?
My hypothesis going in was that my news feed would probably change. I wasn't sure how. Would I see different ads? Fewer ads? More ads? I didn't expect ads to disappear because that's how Facebook makes money. I knew that Facebook performs behavioral targeting, in order to present relevant ads to its users.
My hope was that my news feed would change because my new behavior would influence Facebook's display algorithm. Ideally, I might see more status messages by friends that it previously hadn't shown. If you didn't know, Facebook uses an algorithm to selectively display about 12 percent of the total status messages by all of your friends. Simply, you don't see everything. You never did; and probably never will. Similarly, your friends don't see everything you post. This 12 percent delivery rate makes "frictionless sharing" claims sound like a bunch of BS.
For my experiment, I decided not to change my profile by "un-Liking" any Facebook pages (e.g., newspapers, magazines, celebrities, television shows, musicians, comedians, pundits, etc.) I had previously "Liked." Frankly, I wanted to continue reading content from these news and entertainment sources; and not live in a virtual cave.
For the first two or three days, not clicking on "Like" buttons felt like a burden. I was used to the convenience. It took little effort or thought to click "Like" buttons and links. Maybe, I was going through "Like" withdrawal. After a couple days, it became easy to not click "Like" buttons. I noticed several things. The first thing I noticed was that I had to change. I had to decide what to type instead.
Use Your Words
When my son was 10 to 20 months old, he often greeted a parent by extending his arms upward and grunting. That was his preferred way to ask a parent or adult to pick him up. My wife and I constantly reminded him to use his words. As soon I stopped clicking "Like" buttons, I realized that I had to change: use my words.
What to type? It had been so easy before to simply click "Like" buttons and links. Like many Facebook users, I often clicked only the "Like" button without entering any comments. Now, I had to give Facebook more thought and effort.
What words did I use? I went through predictable variations: "Ha," "LOL," "ROTFL," "WTH," "WTF," "Great photo," "I agree," "Awesome," "Nice," and several more. Had Facebook made me lazy? Perhaps. Probably. Typing the word "Like" seemed stupid with so many "Like" button and links nearby. For a couple days, I used "Likey" in a feeble attempt to merge liking and humor. I quickly abandoned that.
Nobody asked why I was only entering comments and not clicking "Like" buttons nor links.
Life Without Likes
The first week of my experiment flew by. I posted on my personal news feed on August 25:
"A week has passed and I haven't clicked on a single "Like" button. None. Anywhere. Was easier than I thought it would be."
For me, it felt like cable TV or the Major League Baseball strike during 1995. Once you learn to live without it, you soon find it's easy to live without it. You find other things to do instead; often, more enjoyable things to do. So, I decided to extend my experiment to two weeks. I'm glad I did.
One friend suggested a reason why I found it easy to not click "Like" buttons:
"Of course it's easy. You are not young enough to really be stricken with FOMO...."
If you don't know: Fear Of Missing Out. Convenience and fear seem to drive so much of our social media usage. We love the convenience being able to post/read/watch anywhere and anytime. When you and everyone act this way, you quickly fall into the FOMO trap: if you stop acting this way, you'll miss out. You may or may not actually miss anything. It's the fear that you might. During my experiment, I didn't have any feelings of fear. None.
How My Facebook Experience Changed
With a two-week experiment, I noticed several changes. First, before starting my experiment, I often clicked on "Like" buttons for artices from news and entertainment sources. When I did, Facebook dutifully displayed related ads in the right column about the brand or company I just "Liked." Example: after "Liking" a news article about Comcast customer service, Facebook dutifully presented in the right column area ads by Comcast or by other cable/TV/Internet service providers. Now, Facebook seemed to have to work harder to determine what I "liked."
During the first week of my experiment, the links to related articles disappeared. You've probably seen the three related articles the Facebook interface displays when you "Like" an article. During the first week of my experiment, they went away. During the second week, those related articles re-appeared only when I entered a comment. That's good or bad depending upon whether you consider those related articles relevant or not. In my experience, the relevancy is hit or miss. Before my experiment, I rarely clicked on a related-article link. That didn't change during my experiment.
Second, Facebook seemed to work harder by focus on the content I entered into comments. If I mentioned a brand in a comment or status message, then an ad for that brand soon appeared in the right column ad area. Example; while answering a friend's post for advice about leasing automobiles, I mentioned in a comment my experience with leasing a Honda Civic hatchback. Bingo! Facebook soon displayed a Honda ad, assuming I wanted to buy or lease a Honda car. Maybe Facebook did this all along and I just never noticed before. I can say is this: in a life without "Liking" anything, it is more easily noticed. Mention brand names in your comments and Facebook will most likely display ads by those brands.
Third, Facebook seemed to work harder by using my profile data to display ads. I live in Boston and before the experiment had specified Boston in my profile. I noticed ads by Facebook for free movies at the Prudential Mall ( a local shopping area), dentists, and other local services. Those of you who know me, know that I don't like to shop. And, I already have a dentist I am satisfied with. So, irrelevant ads.
In a life without "Likes," it seems that Facebook will dig deeper into your profile and use data from it to display targeted ads. This seems consistent with the targeting options Facebook provides advertisers:
"You can choose the location, gender, age, likes and interests, relationship status, workplace and education of your target audience. If you have a Facebook Page, event or app, you can also target your ad to people who are already connected to you."
The targeting of some of those ads was dubious. I never entered any comments about shopping, dentists, or dental hygiene, but Facebook showed ads anyway.
Fourth, I saw more generic ads, or what seemed to me to be generic ads. I say generic because the ads were for brands I had not "Liked" at all: Verizon Wireless phone service, 1-800-Flowers, customized pen writing instruments, and such.
During my experiment, I did not click on any ads. None. Why? I hadn't clicked on any ads before.
In his experiment, Morgan concluded:
"Now that I am commenting more on Facebook and not clicking Like on anything at all, my feed has relaxed and become more conversational. It’s like all the shouty attention-getters were ushered out of the room as soon as I stopped incidentally asking for those kinds of updates by using the Like function. I have not seen a single repugnant image of animal torture, been exposed to much political wingnuttery, or continued to drown under the influx of über-cuteness that liking kitten posters can bring on."
My experience was similar in some ways and different in other ways. Consistent with Morgan's "conversational" conclusion, I saw more posts by "friends" and fewer posts with news articles in my news feed. It also had implications.
Since I wasn't clicking "Like" buttons for news articles, Facebook's algorithm concluded I must not like them -- and it showed fewer in my news feed. So, to read news content I had to go to my Pages Feed. This behavior change by Facebook makes it a less-than-ideal tool to read news, since I had clearly "Liked" previously several agencies (e.g., CFPB, FTC, FDIC, CUNA, NCUA, advocacy (e.g., CSIPA, ACLU, EFF, Stanford CIS), and news sources (e.g., Mashable, FactCheck, ProPublica, Dorchester Reporter, Bill Moyers). I conclude that Twitter is a better source of news because it doesn't have a filtering algorithm. I see all tweets from the news sources I follow there, making Twitter more reliable and relevant -- for me.
In contrast to Morgan's conclusion, I still saw posts (often articles) by Facebook "friends" who are passionate about animal cruelty. Those posts never bothered me. That didn't change. I still saw posts by friends with photos and video of cute animals. That didn't change, either. I still saw article posts by friends who are passionate about politics. Heck, I post a lot about politics. That didn't change, either.
Given the ease at not "Liking" things on Facebook, I extended my experiment from one to two weeks. I was generally happy with my new experience on Facebook. (Yes, I will admit that there is a part of me that felt glee with thwarting Facebook's algorithm.) I had to work a little harder to view and read articles by the entities I followed. Facebook is still a less-than-optimal way to read news.
Also, I learned a little about how Facebook displays targeted ads. It'll dig deeper into your profile data to do so. And, it'll use your comments text more. I had wanted to see what ads appeared. I saw lots of Verizon Wireless ads -- every day, all day long. I still haven't bought a single thing from that store.
My experiment reinforced my view that Facebook isn't really a social networking service. Why? First, there is the 12-percent delivery rate of your friends' status messages. So, you can't assume you've seen everything by your friends, nor that your friends have seen all of your posts. Not very social. Second, in a life without "Liking" things, as Facebook digs deeper into your profile to target ads, it becomes clear that the service is really a gigantic, worldwide advertising delivery and distribution system.
Will I resume clicking "Like" buttons and links? I haven't decided, yet. I may. I may not. If you want to reduce your use of Facebook without deleting your account, not "Liking" things is an attractive option. A more conversational Facebook is a good thing.
Opinions? Could you use Facebook without clicking "Like" buttons? Would you? Have you? Why or why not?