Will Killing The Like Button Solve Twitter’s Debate Problem?

Probably not, but read our shareable content anyway.

If you’re an internet user, like we obviously are, you’ve probably heard about Twitter’s plan to eradicate the “like” button from its UI and underlying systems, ostensibly to “promote debate” between its users. The Telegraph reported it two days ago, and the response has been intense from Twitter users. The move isn’t an imminent thing, and according to Twitter communications VP Brandon Borrman, it’s been in consideration for a while, even openly stated by CEO Jack Dorsey:

It could still happen, though, so let’s talk about what it might mean. It's likely that users' uproar stems from the “like” being as multipurpose a button as exists on the Internet. Unlike Facebook's equivalent, it can’t be split into different emotes; its meaning is entirely down to the interpretation of the liker and the likee. The utility of this button is as great as its potential for confusion. Here’s a selection (by no means complete) of things a like can mean, ranked in terms of positivity:

  • “I sympathise with what you’re feeling right now, even though I don’t know you”
  • “I value you as a person”
  • “Boy, I am just gearing up to retweet the shit out of this!”
  • “I love you, Significant Other” (rare)
  • “I definitely want to have sex with you, Mere Acquaintance and/or Total Stranger” (common)
  • “I enjoyed the content contained within this tweet”
  • “You made a valid point that I had not considered before”
  • “I, too, am concerned about the issue you’re discussing”
  • “I agree with what you’re saying, and it’d be redundant to parrot your opinion back at you”
  • “Thanks for replying to my tweet!”
  • “I’m answering in the affirmative to the question posed in your tweet”
  • “Your message has been seen and acknowledged”
  • “This conversation is cordially concluded”
  • “I agree with what you’re saying, but I’ve either tweeted this myself, retweeted the parent tweet of this thread, or otherwise don’t feel like adding it to my feed”
  • “I agree with what you’re saying, but am too afraid to broadcast that publicly”
  • “I agree with what you’re saying, and am too afraid to broadcast that publicly, but secretly want to get caught faving your tweet so I can yell at people about it”
  • “Your joke isn’t funny enough to retweet, but hey, you made an effort”
  • “I do not have time to read this thread or article right now, but I am using this favourite to bookmark it for later”
  • “I approve of the way you dragged that person in this reply or quote-tweet”
  • “I’m privately laughing my ass off at your expense”
  • “I am morbidly obsessed with you and will like everything you post, god damn it”
  • “I see you tweeting shit about me, and I want you to know that I see it”
  • “I see you tweeting shit about me, and as I am a masochist, I genuinely like it”
  • “I’m watching you, asshole.”

There’s a lot of subtle variety in there, and it’s mostly positive and affirmative - quiet acknowledgements in a sea of digital noise. Compare this to the set of potential meanings for retweets, most of which are variations on a theme: 

  • “It’s utterly vital that my followers see this tweet”
  • “Check out this hot, fresh content!”
  • “I wholeheartedly endorse this product or message”
  • “This famous person mentioned me and/or my work!”
  • “Please look at this thing I tweeted earlier, PLEASE”
  • “I am morbidly obsessed with you and will retweet everything you post, god damn it”
  • “Hey everyone! Get a load of this asshole!”
  • “Hey everyone! Harass this person!”

To be fair: eliminating the Coward’s Like, or the Thirst Like, wouldn’t be that bad for the platform. It’d force people to stand by the tweets they like in public, or else not engage with them at all, and cut out one particular avenue of interaction for stalkers. It’d also curb the psychologically damaging and unhelpful practice of pumping out snarky tweets solely for the sweet, sweet, dopamine rush of likes. That could certainly bring the tone of conversation more in line with the “debate” Twitter is supposedly promoting. But that view ignores the all-powerful retweet.

One major effect of all this would be to encourage more retweets. You’d see more tweets from people you don’t know, and probably end up turning off retweets for more people you do know. On the other hand, it’d also increase the emotional distance between users, leaving often-liked, never-retweeted users (you know who you are) out in the cold. Maybe people would end up replying more often to acknowledge more personal tweets, but given the speed at which social media timelines flow, I have my doubts.

One thing it definitely would not do, however, is encourage greater “debate.” A retweet-only Twitter would only intensify the echo-chamber qualities of the service, blanketing timelines with the most popular tweets only. Since the most emotive and opinionated tweets invariably end up being retweeted the most, it’d effectively silence what little actual thoughtful discussion goes on on the site, simply by virtue of visibility.

It’s hardly surprising that Twitter is considering making this move; after all, the company started placing tweets merely liked by your friends into your timeline ages ago. A constant flow of viral and highly-trafficked tweets helps keep your heavily usage-tracked eyeballs on Twitter, and thus helps court more advertisers. After all: this is the site that keeps Donald Trump online despite his account clearly posing an existential threat to democracy, thanks to his status as its biggest drawer of press attention and controversy (and, accordingly, user metrics), and maintained a thriving population of neo-Nazis to bolster those numbers. There’s no public good being served by either of those actions; it’s purely for Twitter’s bottom line. A retweet-only world would be created for the same reason.

Twitter’s service isn’t the product it’s selling. You are the product. The most Twitter-famous among you might be able to claim your tweets are valuable, but for the most part, what Twitter is selling is people's time and attention as they scroll through their ad-infused newsfeeds. Any viral tweets you might make are simply a means to draw that attention in. You’d think keeping likes around would help with collating user metrics, and you'd be somewhat correct, but you’d be wrong to think your likes are worth anything to advertisers. The only thing that matters is the retweet: getting unpaid users to do marketing outreach. Hell, we rely on this at BMD; all websites dependent on clicks for survival do. This is why companies employ social media specialists. It's how the game is played.

Ultimately, the issue with “debate” on Twitter is that debate already takes place - between people operating on mutual good faith. Sadly, though, that represents a small portion of the datastream. A vast majority of users stand at extremes of political or cultural opinion, at least in terms of how they present themselves online. The only constructive conversation takes place between people with relatively small degrees of difference. Everyone else is primed for a fight, and will never change their minds, no matter what’s said to them. The mechanics of social media have trained us into this, and those habits won’t go away with the simple removal of a button. 

Not to mention the issue on many lips: the Nazis, and their alt-right descendants, filling up Twitter’s servers as a chemical plant does a river. There’s no “debating” with people who crave your physical extermination. There are no lines of dialogue to be opened between them and the people they would have literally deported or killed. There’s no constructive conversation with people who post hateful MAGA memes, or (in the case of Cesar Sayoc) make death threats that Twitter considers OK per its terms of service, then act on them. It cannot be overstated how badly Twitter needs to crack down on this; it cannot be understated how badly it needs to crack down on the like button.

Honestly, I don't really give a damn what happens to the like button. But for the love of Christ: if you want more debate, get rid of the Nazis, who aren't open to it anyway. And everyone else: talk to actual human beings. In person. It's great.