What's the "Value" of a "Like"?
Facebook insists that you are not giving up any personal information when you click a "Like" button, but even if we take that statement at face value, there are some very important transactions that take place behind the scenes on every click. Those interactions all contribute to the "value" of a click, and the underlying motives to reap that value are going to fuel (and fund) how this whole thing is going to evolve.
"Value" doesn't mean "Money". It means "Getting What You Want".
The real value of a Like is defined by how well it serves a three-way set of competing agendas — you, whoever set up the "Like" button, and Facebook.
Note that those agendas aren't necessarily conflicting with one another, they're competing. There's always room for a healthy give-and-take between the parties in a negotiation, and the best path to some kind of win-win — or at least to protecting your own interests — is by understanding what's at stake.
Defining a collective reality
While we all like to think that we make up our own minds, the reality is that even our "personal decisions" are made through a highly social process. We don't just "take other people's advice" – we're all continually engaged in a collective effort to define a shared view of the world around us. The collective definitions that we agree on are, quite literally, our "common ground". They are the only reason that we can think about and act within the world together.
That fundamental concept of how we gather and construct our perception of the world has been explored most prominently by the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (among others, obviously), through a school of thought that's often called "Constructivism".
As the name implies, one of its key tenets is that we don't start with a built-in understanding of the world, or else somehow gradually "absorb" facts from an external reality ("objectivism"). Instead, Constructivism maintains that we each slowly build our own internal model of the world, but that we do that by drawing from a shared set of cognitive tools.
The key point is this: The information that we gather through our social relationships influences our thinking below the level of conscious thought. There's a common tendency to think of social influence as a primarily "conscious" or semi-conscious process. ("Oh, look! Mark likes that band. I should go check out their new album on iTunes.") That top-of-mind processing definitely happens, and it plays a role. But we also need to be aware of the fact that when someone we know and trusts makes an emphatic assertion about the world, then it doesn't really matter whether or not we consciously "think" a lot about what they just said. There are deeper cognitive processes that respond to that new piece information on an almost autonomic level, and start deciding how to take it into account. Does it conflict with your existing interpretation of the world? Does it expand it? Does it reinforce your confidence in some aspect of your mental model?
Be Careful What You Wish For
Piaget and other developmental theorists have examined these processes in great detail, including how techniques such as "assimilation" and "accommodation" continually revise and extend our cognitive model of the world. One of their most important findings is that these processes are all extremely sensitive to context. Information that comes in through a reliable context is basically given "the benefit of the doubt", and treated as something that automatically should become part of what Piaget called our "mental schema".
Specifically, Piaget postulated that the social contexts that influenced our schema fell into two categories:
- Asymmetrical: Relationships with an unequal balance of authority and control, such as between a teacher and a student, or parent and child.
- Cooperative: Relationships where the "balance of power" is more equal.
It's obviously debatable whether there are just two types, or many different flavors, but that's not really a key issue here. What's really important is that we tend to (a) "receive" new information, and then (b) "believe" it differently, depending on the context.Teaching styles, and the discovery of pepper»
Put simply, our minds don't expect to "debate" new information from an asymmetrical source before going on to assimilate it into our schema. That has nothing to do with whether or not we agree with that new data point, but it can have everything to do with how deeply it influences our perceptions. Think of memorizing a calculus formula, when you don't understand how it really works. You'll do it, but it's not very likely to help you figure something out 20 years later.
On the other hand, the permission to question information that we get within a cooperative context — whether or not we do question it — can have a huge effect on how much we trust it later.
It's no surprise that these theories dramatically influenced our approach to education and parenting. Whether or not we're familiar with the academic theory, almost anyone today can recognize stereotypes of "good" and "bad" teaching styles in these definitions — and anyone who's gone to school in the past 50 years owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Piaget and his colleagues.
You Are What You..."Eat"
How does this apply to marketing? Well, let's just look at how the social context between marketers and consumers has shifted. No matter how personable it is — and no matter what kind of technology it uses — any message that comes directly from a marketer is intrinsically asymmetrical. In "traditional" advertising, there's obviously very little room for the individual consumer to have a debate with a company. Even in newer social channels, though, like a Facebook fan page or a GetSatisfaction forum, the context of any "debate" is highly structured, formalized and moderated. Sure, "kinda-cooperative" is a lot nicer — and more trustworthy — than "totally asymmetrical", but there's no way to completely get around the fact that you're interacting with a commercial enterprise. I'm not saying that's terrible...I'm just saying it's true.Two points on the way 'Like' works today»
On the other hand, when one of your friends states how they feel about something, you have every opportunity to share your opinion, in a (somewhat) private context. Leaving aside any debate over security/privacy issues, the point is that most people now see Facebook as an intimate, semi-private forum. If you learn that your frat brother from 20 years ago loved Letters to Juliet, you can definitely be the first one to pile on with a comment and mock him, but if one of your other friends backs him up...admit it. You'll be much, much more likely to agree to it on your next date night.
Our intellectual metabolism
It's important to keep in mind that this is continually going on in our minds, on a subconscious level. The most useful analogy may be our digestion and metabolism. When your body is metabolizing food, it doesn't really matter how much you "thought" about the food as you were eating it. Sure, your conscious awareness might affect how much you eat, or your emotional state, but once that steak hits your stomach it kicks off a set of autonomic processes that aren't really affected by your thoughts. The proteins, carbohydrates and fats you ingested are going to be "taken into account", and your body will be different somehow as a result. Not dramatically because of one meal, but over time, those autonomic processes are the ones that most directly define who we are physically.
In the same way, these deep cognitive tools directly define our interpretation of the world…and whether or not we're paying attention to them, they're always paying attention. Every single piece of evidence that we're exposed to about what our friends think, or how they behave, gets factored into our mental schema one way or another, just like every morsel of food that we eat gets metabolized. Along those same lines, just as the volume of food we metabolize over time can add up to a dramatic impact (for better or worse), continual exposure to assertions about what our friends and family "Like" can't help but influence how we understand the world.
So is this another reason I'm supposed to quit Facebook?
Not at all. (At least, as far as I see it.) The basic point is that the human mind has evolved to grow and thrive through what we learn from other people — especially the people we know and trust. Facebook — or any other social technology — can represent an enormous, richly detailed source of social interactions.
From a personal perspective, the main thing is just to be as conscious of the influences we're taking in as we should try to be about the food that we eat. It's just important to recognize that the Like button (or any similar mechanism) is like a bowlful of "influence M&Ms". One M&M isn't going to make you fat, and no single "Like" announcement on Facebook is likely to change your mind about something.
NOTE TO SELF: "My mind was designed to be messed with"
Most importantly, though, we just need to take the opportunity and remind ourselves that our interpretation of the world is not "fixed", and it's not really under our conscious control. Our understanding of the world is being continually updated and refined by our cognitive processes whether or not we notice, and whether or not we want to admit it. Acknowledging the fact that our "minds" are continually changing — and that they're subject to degree of influence from the outside world that isn't always comfortable to admit — is really the key thing.
Over the course of upcoming posts, I'm planning to look at those stakes on a few different levels, including:
- The psychological and social implications of asking people to publicly proclaim something about themselves — like how the phenomenon of "choice-supportive bias" encourages us to feel much more strongly about something after we feel that we've "chosen" it.
- The strategic marketing implications of an almost "frictionless" lead-gathering tool
- The impact of giving companies access to an entirely new class of highly authoritative, incredibly specific customer data.
For now, though, I just want to get this started by looking more closely at one aspect of the psychological factors involved — how we're continually re-building our mental model of the world, and how that ongoing process can be affected by our social interactions.Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5
While Piaget remains a towering figure in developmental theory, there's been a lot of work done since his work in the mid-20th century. Piaget defined a very rigid set of developmental phases that he felt everyone goes through, and many psychologists now feel that he over-generalized. He also focused primarily on cognitive development from infancy through adolescence, without looking as closely at how those same mechanisms continue to guide our thinking as "mature" adults.
Other theorists such as Lev Vygotsky have also established"Social Constructivism", focusing on how many (or even most) of those cognitive tools we use are deeply social. Piaget certainly did acknowledge social factors, but he tended to look more at the ways that children interact more directly with the world.
Also, while Constructivism has become a predominant model for cognitive development, as you might assume, it isn't universally accepted. Personally, though, I've always found it to be highly convincing. For one thing, there is a ton of research to support it. (Much of it done by Piaget. He had a brilliant knack for devising simple, convincing experiments to test his theories.) More importantly, it just seems very clearly supported by my own personal experiences, as a student and as a teacher.Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5
It's important to note that while these developmental theorists aggressively championed a new style of "cooperative" learning, that effort took place within very specific historical circumstances. Overall, most of them understood that the different contexts complement each other, but 19th-century Europe (like Switzerland, where Piaget grew up) had adopted a very "asymmetrical" approach to education.
I'm guessing most parents and teachers would agree with what I've learned through experience — that the most effective approach is to modulate carefully between different contexts. In a sense, discovering a cooperative approach in an asymmetrical culture is like discovering pepper, when all you had before was salt. The new stuff is great, and it may be better for you than the old stuff, but you wouldn't want to just cook with pepper.Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5
- I'm definitely aware that, as of 05/21/2010, you can't directly add a comment to a friend's "Like" notification in your stream. As opposed to...when they "Add a new friend", "Join a group", "Check in from Foursquare" or do just about anything else. Give it a bit.
- You might also ask "Then how is 'liking' a movie any different than a status update saying it's awesoome"? As far as their potential influence on your perceptions, they're very similar. What is different is that a "Like" enters you into a marketing program, but that's covered through other posts.