“Both hugely uplifting and depressing”: How do social media Likes affect you?

Results of a New Statesman survey reveal how the one-click interaction influences our daily lives and moods.

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In the early fourteenth century, peasants in southern Germany would collectively hunt for smooth pebbles which they would then paint (using a mixture of boiled beetroots and milk) to leave outside each other’s doors. The house with the most coloured pebbles outside it was the house most favoured by those in the community, and its residents could hold their heads slightly higher at Sunday morning mass each week.

This, of course, is completely untrue. The fact there is no real historical precedent for social media “Likes” illustrates how jarring it is that we have introduced a system whereby we can visibly quantify and publicly display our social worth on an interaction-by-interaction basis. Throughout history, humans have come up with an abundance of ways to demonstrate their social standing, but none have been as pervasive, as recurrent, and as efficient as the Like button.

In just over a decade, Likes (which, for the sake of brevity, include “Upvotes”, “Hearts”, and “Favourites” in this piece) have become commonplace across a variety of social networks. But what really is a Like, anyway? Why do we Like posts, and how do we feel when our own posts are Liked? Has this huge shift in the way we interact had a positive impact, or a negative one? To find out, I conducted a survey of 518 social media users, from teenagers to sexagenarians.

How many Likes do we like?

It turns out that most of us don’t have particularly grand aspirations when it comes to Likes. When asked what is the number of Likes we, realistically, aim for when creating a post, 64.1 per cent of us said we wanted between zero and 20. Only 1.5 per cent of us aimed for between 60 and 70, with just 1.4 per cent wanting over 1,000.

“Likes are always an indicator of social standing, at my age,” says an anonymous 17-year-old survey respondent. “As someone who gets anxious and occasionally struggles with self-esteem, the amount of Likes on my posts can be both hugely uplifting or depressing.”

Which Likes do we like?

We hold this truth to be self-evident: not all Likes are created equal. Most of us – 86.3 per cent to be precise – admit to valuing Likes from certain people more than we value those from others.

“If I shared a link to a new song and ‘Marie Mummy Fox’ from secondary school liked it I would question who I really am,” explained one anonymous survey respondent. “But if my music-wizard pal Rowan Mckillop liked it I'd feel a sense of approval or achievement.”

But not only do we value Likes from certain people, we also have a preference as to which of our posts get the most Likes. Just under a quarter (23.7 per cent) of us want our opinions to get the most Likes, while 18 per cent most value the Likes they get on their jokes. This was followed by 16 per cent who desire Likes on pictures of their life, and only 5 per cent of people who cherish Likes on their selfies the most.

If you’re happy and you know it, check your Likes

It probably won’t surprise you that 89 per cent of us admit that getting lots of Likes on social media makes us happy, but what’s interesting is that, for 40 per cent of these people, the happiness only lasts as long as the Likes keep coming in. After getting lots of Likes, 12.5 per cent of people will feel happy for around an hour, 10.2 per cent will feel it for the entire day, and for 3.1 per cent of people, it will last a week. It seems, also, that we are all well aware of the power of the Like button to invoke happiness, as 70.1 per cent of us have Liked someone else’s post in order to make them feel good.

“I don't think it's a coincidence that my mental health has become more stable in the time that I've got a regular circle of followers who like a lot of my tweets,” says Tyron Wilson, a 25-year-old researcher.

It seems logical that if getting lots of Likes makes us happy, getting few – or none – would make us sad. However only 32.6 per cent of respondents admitted that getting few likes on a post made them unhappy, with the majority saying it doesn’t.

“I hardly have negative changes in my self-esteem if I don't get a lot of likes. I usually just attribute it to the time of day or the number of friends who have access to my profile,” said one survey respondent. “However, many likes, especially on a selfie post or a post of a picture of my life, can certainly make me feel good in that moment.”

Despite less than a third of us being unhappy with a small number of Likes, however, 42.1 per cent of people have deleted a post because it didn’t get “enough” Likes. Unhappiness is also generated when we compare ourselves to others, with 55.4 per cent of people admitting to having been jealous when they see someone else with a high number of Likes.

For a rare few people, too many Likes can actually make us unhappy. Ed Williamson, a 37-year-old film reviewer for theshiznit.co.uk, admits: “I sometimes get annoyed when someone Likes too many of my tweets, because it makes me feel like they're not discriminating enough, which devalues the action.”

Overall, however, 62.7 per cent of us agree or strongly agree with the sentiment “I feel a buzz when someone Likes my post”. Matthew Sumption, a 24-year-old Oxford student, reveals that he kept checking his status for days after it “blew up” and got over 250 Likes. “I'm very conscious of the fact this probably isn't a very healthy way to behave, but I think the combination of the dopamine hit when someone Likes a post and the feeling of being 'liked' by your peers has a kind of irresistible cachet,” he says.

Likes can also make us happy in more indirect – and sometimes malicious – ways. Just under half – 43.8 per cent – of people have felt schadenfreude from seeing someone else’s post get a low number of Likes.

When is a Like not a like?

When we get a Like, we mostly interpret it as just that – an outward expression that someone likes you (they really like you!). However, the survey’s respondents revealed that they also Like posts for other, slightly more selfish, reasons.

Just over half  (51.2 per cent) of us have Liked something to stop a conversation by indicating we’ve finished replying, while 39.4 per cent of us have Liked a post to remind someone else we exist, and 22.2 per cent of us have Liked a post so that person will Like our posts in turn. A very small number of people (4.6 per cent) have also passively aggressively Liked a “sad” status to show that they’re happy about another’s misfortune.

A Like is also not a “like” when it is coerced. 28.8 per cent of us admit we have asked someone else to Like our posts. Self-reporting bias might have been in action here, however, as a much higher proportion – 64.1 per cent – of us say that someone else has asked us to Like their post.

Additionally, 78.8 per cent of us have deliberately not Liked a post because we didn’t like the person who posted it, suggesting that Likes are not just an indication of who Likes your post, but who Likes you.

The most likable statistic

Perhaps the most revealing statistic of all, however, is one of the most simple. When asked whether they’d like more, fewer, or the same number of Likes, 67.4 per cent of respondents wanted more, 32.4 per cent wanted the same, and only one, very lonely figure, wanted fewer.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh