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'Everyone is distracted. All of the time'

Years on, creators of Facebook ‘Like’ button give idea thumbs down

Justin Rosenstein and Leah Pearlman say feature they helped design encourages overuse of social media, ‘like eating bad potato chips’

File: This July 16, 2013, photo shows a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
File: This July 16, 2013, photo shows a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

A decade ago, Justin Rosenstein and Leah Pearlman were part of a small team of Facebook employees that designed the “Like” button, a little blue and white thumbs up designed to send “little bits of positivity” zooming through the social media platform.

Today, the two say they regret having ever unleashed the ubiquitous icon on the world, blaming it for the rise of what they see as an “attention economy” that is hurting humanity.

Rosenstein, 34, an engineer and Pearlman, 35, a product manager, have since left Facebook, and in separate interviews recently, each expressed concern for the Frankenstein’s monster the button has become.

“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences,” Rosenstein told the Guardian.

Jason Rosenstein (Left) and Leah Pearlaman, co-creators of the Facebook “Like” button. (Screen captures/YouTube)

Explaining the motivation behind the “Like” button, Rosenstein said, “I think at the time it was this really small kernel of an idea of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to more easily just give someone kudos?’”

Pearlman told The Ringer sports and culture website that her inspiration behind the “was really about cleanliness and consolidation.”

The “Like” button was first rolled out in 2009, at first in a limited form. Since then, though, the button has morphed into an array of reactions and the icon has become a sort of global shorthand, being co-opted by everything from ad campaigns to propaganda.

While the button is designed for users to easily express support for a post, picture or comment, it also allows Facebook to track users’ preferences.

In her initial blog post introducing the new feature, Pearlman wrote, “your friends, and their photos, notes, statuses and more are what make Facebook great. When your friends share something great, let them know you like it.”

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc.,(AFP PHOTO / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA)

But as the “Like” button took off and enjoyed usage numbers that analysts place in the trillions, Rosenstein said it has “also led to the rise of clickbait.”

“I think it’s also caused the distribution of things that, even if people Like them, aren’t necessarily time well spent.”

He explained that the feature also helped to contribute to a growing societal phenomenon known as “continuous partial attention” where smartphone users are unable to focus. “Everyone is distracted. All of the time,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein, who founded Asana, a San Francisco-based company that works to maximize office productivity, and Pearlman, who created Dharma comics, a popular web comic series, are part of a small but growing cadre of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are encouraging their colleagues in the industry to reassess the aftermath of their work.

Recognizing the control Facebook has had over their lives, each has taken steps to wean themselves off the social media platform that they helped build to its current state of dominance. Pearlman hired a social media expert to manage her Facebook page and Rosenstein imposed personal limits on his use of the site.

Former Google strategist James Williams said that features such as the “Like” button have encouraged companies to depict issues in a manner that makes them compulsive and irresistible. “The attention economy incentivizes the design of technologies that grab our attention. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions,” he told the Guardian.

Pearlman compared the compulsive need of Facebook users to continuously check the site to see how many “Likes” a new post had received to “eating bad potato chips.”

“I check and I feel bad…Whether there’s a notification or not, it doesn’t really feel that good. Whatever we’re hoping to see, it never quite meets that bar,” she said.

Critics of Facebook have pointed to Facebook’s algorithm, compounded by the “Like” feature designed to encourage users to quickly share posts with as many people as possible, as a factor in the spread of fake news stories that many believe helped sway the 2016 US presidential elections.

Close-up view of Facebook notifications on a smartphone. (JaysonPhotography/Istock by Getty Images)

The Ringer cited a Buzzfeed analysis that found that the “20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs” generated more reactions, shares and comments than “the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites.”

Beyond the election cycle, the “Like” button has helped foster a platform where users are seeking to fill Facebook with the most provocative content possible. “That’s what the algorithm is putting in front of you. It’s putting this very intense, distilled version of life in front of you, and that’s a kind of stress. You’ve just created this user experience that emphasizes intensity,”  design journalist Cliff Kuang told The Ringer.

Rosenstein recognized that the “Like” feature has grown way too big to simply disappear, regardless of the unintended consequences. Since leaving Facebook, he is no longer able to influence the direction of the feature directly. However, he encouraged the site’s engineers to reconsider how the button can be tweaked to better serve its users.

“I do think it’s important for designers to continue to think about how we can make the software itself bias us toward playing to our highest selves rather than our lower selves,” he told The Ringer. “Sometimes people can just think, ‘Well, it’s just what the platform computes and we don’t have any control over it.’ Well, that’s not true. The way you make these design decisions deeply impacts the results, and small tweaks can make huge differences.”

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