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Likes, Retweets, Double Taps and Smiley Faces: The Economy of Social Networks [Off Topic]


Lately I have been trying to be more conscious of the reasons behind why I post something on a social network. As I near 19,000 tweets I am keenly aware that I share my thoughts more than most people. I am certainly not anywhere near having the most tweets, but as I have participated in social networks like MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, Path, Instagram, and others over the past few years I have adjusted how much I share and how I share it.

When I joined MySpace (somewhere around 2005-2006) it was designed as a simple way to share information about yourself, blog, listen to music, and share photos. I often blogged about my life on MySpace, but it was much more about who you are than what was happening in your life right now. Facebook changed that by implementing a status update. MySpace had a similar feature (share your mood), but Facebook made it the center. I think most people migrated from MySpace to Facebook (a migration that has never been replicated from Facebook to elsewhere despite Google’s best efforts) because Facebook encouraged you to share about now, while MySpace was more like your own website.

Since Facebook has risen in popularity we’ve seen services like Twitter and Instagram rise up as simplified versions of the same idea: share content with others. While Facebook has become a behemoth for both text and media content sharing, services like Twitter and App.net focus on text sharing while Instagram and Flickr focused on sharing photos, not text. At their core, however, all of these services center around the same thing: publish yourself.

Every digital service is centered around two types of interactions: publishing content and rating content. On Facebook you update your status and like a picture of your high school buddy’s cat; on Google Plus you share a YouTube video and +1 your favorite Android app; on Twitter you tweet about whatever mundane activity you’re participating in and retweet that Justin Bieber likes cereal for breakfast; on Foursquare you check in to maintain mayorship of your own house and leave a tip at your local gym; on Instagram you post a picture of your lunch and double tap to like a friend’s image that they filtered to look like it had been recovered from Egypt after the seven plagues; on Path you share what music you’re listening to and laugh at a friend’s story; on App.net you wish more people were there. The list goes on and on.

There are at least three questions I think we should consider when we evaluate this system of publishing and rating. First, is what you’re about to publish more valuable if it is on a social network, or would it be just as valuable if shared personally (in person, via text, through email, etc.)? Second, does the content you publish become more valuable if others rate it (and conversely less valuable if others do not rate it)? Third, are ratings of your content on a social network valuable?

This year after we finished setting up the Christmas tree at my mother and father-in-law’s house we took a family photo. I posted the picture on Instagram and received a number of likes. The following day, my sister-in-law (who is sixteen) reposted my picture and has triple the number of likes that mine has. I got value out of sharing that picture because family and friends were able to see it, but it would have been just as valuable for me if it had not been shared. It’s one of the few pictures I have of our three families together and it represents a milestone in my life (my first Christmas as an official part of the family). The content did not become more valuable for me because of the likes that it did or did not receive. For my sister-in-law, however, that picture gained value with the number of likes it received. For her it was less valuable if it was not shared. It isn’t that she doesn’t appreciate that moment like I do, but rather that sharing that moment made it more valuable for her.

The economy of social networks is tricky. Should I feel less important or popular or valuable if I have fewer followers on Twitter than another or if no one retweets my awesome joke? Should I choose to post something based on whether or not I think it will receive likes? Am I part of a social network just to glorify myself and encourage others to like my content so I can feel good about who I am? Is that the kind of person that I want to be?

These may seem like too deep of questions to ask in response to social networking, but the reality is that social networks have become an integral part of who we are. Many of us have either consciously or subconsciously learned to value publishing content for the sake of ratings. Sharing about yourself is not in and of itself bad and it isn’t wrong for you to feel good about yourself if someone double taps your Instagram picture.

I’m not a Luddite lobbyist or a hipster who owns dozens of LPs but no record player. I value technology and social networking, but I also recognize that publishing in and of itself isn’t valuable. Even if dozens or hundreds of people like something I post, that doesn’t mean it is objectively valuable, and even more importantly that shouldn’t mean that it is more subjectively valuable to me.

Personally, I’m still muddling through these questions and trying to understand why I publish what I do. I’m beginning to ask myself if things are more or less valuable if I post them, etc. I don’t know if I’m becoming a better or worse person because of social networking, but I want to be sure that I’m at least asking myself the right questions to start to discern that. While some things are certainly more valuable when shared, I’m trying to find a balance with the things that I share and to appreciate moments and ideas sans ratings. I’m learning that journaling helps filter out the urge to publish and trying to remember that ratings on social networks truly should not alter my behavior or self-esteem. Just because something is published does not mean it is more valuable.

  • Raven

    I think it is all about how you use them. First off, I just plain do not get Twitter. The only things that I have ever posted on Twitter are contest entries for this site, and if anyone is bored enough to follow me than that is their tough luck. Facebook on the other hand I do use to stay in contact with friends and family, but I also treat it as not quite a diary, but more of a record of my life that my friends and relatives can look at if they want to. I mainly post pictures of big events and a lot of things concerning my daughter. I occasionally post articles that my friends or family might find useful. I rarely, if ever, look at anyone else’s page, and I almost never post on anyone else’s page. I mainly just use Facebook for me and treat it as a digital photo album that I can also post some articles on that I found interesting. I think if you are all concerned about who added you or unfriended you or collecting friends to see who can get the highest friend count than you are just doing it wrong and need to work on some other parts of your life.

  • DanWazz

    I think you get out of a socialnetwork what you put into it. If you upvote a bunch of stuff, post constantly and spend a lot of time on it, you’re going to put more value on whether or not people react to content you post. If you’re a casual user who posts occasional updates, you won’t value the reaction that much. In the end, it’s a ll so people can “stalk” each other with minimal effort.

  • Facebook is sabotaging its Android app on purpose because they have an ongoing feud with Android’s owner, Google. The iPhone app works almost perfect. Droid Life needs to run a story on this. {{-_-}}

  • SubaruMasterGR

    Great article, Ron!

    I don’t use social networking sites anymore (Facebook became far too immature after I added certain people and “unfriending” them would bring about an epic backlash), but I asked myself these very same questions before I posted anything online. Oftentimes, I found that, if I posted something that I felt was meaningful, it would be ignored. However, if someone was to post something about a fight, argument, or anything of the sort, the number of likes the comment or image would receive would be astronomical. After some time, I began to think that what I had to say was irrelevant to the rest of the world, so I noted my views in a personal journal and let my Facebook page fall to the wayside. Eventually, I worked up the courage to delete it and I made the conscious decision to remain out of “the loop.” I’d rather have my sanity than to know what is going on with people that I barely know.

    I doubt that closing my Facebook page has made me a better person, but it has kept my sanity in place, for the most part. I’m no longer worried about what people will think about me because of what I choose to upload. Such things should not have mattered to me before, but disconnecting from the sharing behemoth that is Facebook has helped to put things into perspective. If the day comes that I decide to rejoin social networking sites, I know that I can use this article as an example of how to use social networking properly.

    • michael arazan

      I closed EffBook 2 years ago, 6 months after I opened it just to look up 2 people. I can’t believe people would want to stay on a site the puts hidden cookies on your pc’s that track every webpage you go to, claims they own all intellectual property over everything you upload to EffBook, from your ideas to pictures and videos, etc, all become the property of Facebook. Google+ Does none of that.

  • elemeno

    It’s a good thing you don’t derive self esteem from positive reviews of your articles because they rarely prove valuable to me.

    Exhibit A: Ron blabbering about Ron blabbering.

    • FortitudineVincimus

      You just nailed all of what stupid social media is about..

      Person A blabbering about Person A.

      I hate it all and participate in none of it. Zero. I have no accounts on any social media sites at all and never have. It wrecks lives, stops jobs, leads to theft and assaults, wrecks marriages, leads to suicide and in between all of that it is just inane people babbling on about all of the cool trite stuff they do & how hip and neat they are & how their thoughts are so amazing & their friends are so badazz.. not realizing, they are all sheep for being tricked into participating in the BS and are not cool nor unique in any way. How many hours do people like the poster of this much to long story spend jumping around from social media site to social media site just to post some stupid BS.

      I long for the day of a social media armageddon where the people finally get their heads out of their azzzes and realize, not even 1% of the crap we write on the web is of any value. Maybe even this.

  • SD_Scott


  • It depends on insecurity when it comes to determining what is “valuable” to a person. I know that if I have a status with a lot of likes or a Tumblr post (yes I reluctantly use the site) with a lot of notes, it boosts the self-esteem in a sad way that has been established as the Internet has become and integral part of all our lives. Having a big presence on “the internet” means different things to different people, so that is how value is judged.

    Long sentences aside, I have 150,000 tweets and I am SO ASHAMED

    • FortitudineVincimus

      Your not ashamed, you gloat in it and love it, but then try to do that weird social media thing where you say things like “yes I reluctantly use…” to try to downgrade your actual love for it.

      • i hate on tumblr daily and havent posted in months

  • James_Kernicky

    I wonder how many people comment on this site just for the likes? From what I see it’s a decent amount sometimes.

  • todd

    I think the problem with social media is that people think quantity instead of quality. You can tell a lot of people use it as a time killer instead of tool to share useful information socially. I don’t really see the need to share every lolcat picture on the internet or every song and video you listen to or watch.

  • Want to know what I think? Follow me on twitter: @OSITF_blog

  • Aran Miller

    I agree with you 100%. I also don’t just add people on a social network just because they add me. I personally think you should value their opinion if you are going to be sharing parts of your life with them. so it doesn’t come down to if I get a lot of likes or +1 but more of did the responses I did get come from who I wanted and does their addition add value to what it is I shared.

  • Thinker

    is this comment more valuable if i post it? or if i keep it in my head?

    • FortitudineVincimus

      In reality, neither as it has zero value. But social media actually has you and others contemplating the value of every thought they have and it’s value to the rest of the world.

  • fist


  • fartbubbler

    too many words.

  • Josh Flowers

    19,000 tweets? Good gosh. I think once they make them all downloadable (archivable), you should import them into some speech synthesis program like ‘DragonSpeak’ and have it play at random times of the day.