“Human communication has occurred when a human being responds to a symbol.” — Gary Cronkhite
It started out as a symbolic physical gesture in ancient Rome. Thumbs up and the gladiator lived. Thumbs down and he died.
Later on, World War II pilots used the thumbs up to communicate that they were clear to go, possibly by imitating a Chinese gesture that meant “№1.” When I worked as an airport ramp agent, a double thumbs up going outward gesture still meant remove the chocks; the plane is ready to leave the gate.
Siskel and Ebert used thumbs up (or down) to indicate their approval of a movie. The simple “two thumbs up” became a shorthand for “high quality.”
And then, Facebook adopted the thumbs up (calling it a “like”), and the symbol took on a whole new level of meaning and everyday ubiquity. Far past its evolution meaning “you live or die,” it took on the connotation of digital nod, fist bump, high five, laugh or even sympathy hug.
I remember waking up on a summer day in 2010 and my Facebook feed was taken over by thumbs. You could now give a thumbs up not just to a status update or photo, but to comments themselves.
Since then, likes and their equivalent (hearts, stars, upvotes, even the +1) have become the de facto digital approval. It’s a quick way to communicate “I see you, and I acknowledge you” with the quick click of a button on just about every social media platform that exists.
I wonder just how many billions of thumbs up are given each day, and how this is affecting our behavior.
And I think it’s time to change.
French scholar Jean Baudrillard wrote about how we originally used symbols to help us better communicate. But over time, the symbols start to control us and our behavior.
Status symbols are an example. We don’t get luxury cars because of their usefulness for transportation; we get them because of what they say about our socio-economic status. We don’t get watches to tell the time; we get them as a form of apparel. Clothes aren’t merely a protection from the elements; they are fashion symbols.
We became slaves to our symbols.
In the same way thumbs up as a symbol has taken on a life of its own. This is why, for example, people start buying likes on Facebook or Instagram. These symbols are supposed to represent popularity and approval. But when they become a financial transaction, the symbols become hollow. We’re controlled by the pursuit of the like and the heart, signifying nothing but vanity.
In the final stage of Baudrillard’s theory, signs create reality. Signs, endlessly reproduced, point to nothing real. Baudrillard predicted bots liking posts.
The thumbs up is a relic of our early days of social media, and because of that it’s limited in what it can symbolically convey. In the physical world, we have a broad range of verbal and nonverbal responses. The digital world is still a long way from catching up.
Facebook knows this, which is why it introduced “haha,” “wow,” “sad” and “angry” face reactions. And now Medium’s latest attempt is the clap, which can be used once or multiple times on a post.
These attempts to provide nuance to the symbols better reflect life. The “like” never felt like a good answer to someone’s loved one passing. Sometimes you want to give a golf clap, and sometimes a thunderous standing ovation.
But there’s one notable social media exception that has no equivalent to the like button: Snapchat.
On Snapchat, there’s only one way to respond to someone, and that’s by actually writing, recording or sending a live image in reply. You can’t just click a perfunctory button as reply.
Imagine if you’re hanging out with someone in the non-digital world and they just told you something. Would you sit there and hold up your thumb? Would you just start clapping?
Of course not. You’d look like a psychopath. Instead, you’d talk back to them like a normal person.
So yes, the like button needs to evolve, and clapping is better. But responding with actual dialogue will always be the most human.