Future Tense

The Upvote Friendship

Are “one-click actions” supplanting—or supplementing—actual relationships?


Illustration by Slate. Image by Shutterstock.

Over the past year, I’ve kept friends in the loop with Facebook updates on my Dadaist birth control dreams, that time I woke up looking like Evgeni Plushenko, my evolving perspective on Breaking Bad, NYC real estate snark, and photo documentation of myself in an Ikea monkey costume.

My indulgent friends bestow “likes” on these status updates—and in many cases, those quick upvotes are the only contact we’ve had in a long time. Often enough, it’s a consistent exchange of upward-facing thumbs—a way of suddenly communicating again, but not directly. This effect, I’m sure, is widespread, but among the many existential quandaries brought about by social media, there’s something altogether new and different about maintaining relationships with people that are entirely limited to liking each other’s posts. Let’s call this the “upvote friendship.”

Are you currently engaged in an upvote friendship? Here are the signs:

  • You and your social media friend habitually “like” each other’s posts.
  • You don’t typically comment or message each other.
  • You and SMF exchange no form of direct communication.
  • SMF may even have a habit of not responding to your attempts to initiate direct communication, but will continue appreciating your cat GIFs from afar.

All of this, of course, leads to a question that’s admittedly been beaten to death already: Is social media/the Internet/technology degrading the quality of our relationships, or has it actually paved the way for a greater level of connectedness? Would we wind up writing to one another more if the “like” button never existed, or would we stop hearing from old friends altogether?

In 1872, Charles Darwin was laying the groundwork for a possible answer. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he applied his famous evolutionary perspective to questions like: “Why do we wrinkle our nose when we are disgusted and bare our teeth when we are enraged?” If he were writing today, he might ask, “Why do we ‘like’ each other’s Facebook posts but ignore each other’s texts?”

Nonverbal signals account for two-thirds of all communication. As the old canard goes, actions (and tone and body language) speak louder than words. But what if someone communicated with you using only body signals and eye contact? In theory, tacit signals like these can all be traced back to behaviors that once helped us survive in the wild. Divorced from their usual context of spoken language, they could very well land you with that modern-day survival mechanism we call a restraining order.

Of course, you can’t entirely equate the things you do in person with the things you do behind a screen. But even before the Internet, social psychologist Michael Argyle raised the hypothesis that we rely on verbal communication to talk about things that are unrelated to us personally—nonverbal language is what we use to convey our feelings for one another. It might also simply be more polite or prudent to keep your words to a minimum.

Moreover, these tendencies may merely be a symptom of communication overload. As Peter Andersen proposed in Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions, “immediacy behaviors” (such as smiling, touching, and eye contact) occur more frequently in high-contact cultures. What is the Internet, if not a turbo-contact culture?

More than one person I spoke with on this topic pointed out that research suggests our brains can only handle a certain number of relationships at any given time. Studies of primate brains have arrived at Dunbar’s number, which is about 150, as being our maximum friend capacity. However, Facebook data scientist Moira Burke thinks that Facebook acts as a sort of bionic social noggin—before, we were clocking in at around 150. Now, that number is likely somewhat higher thanks to the advent of what she calls “lightweight interactions” on social media.

Burke and her colleague Robert Kraut recently published a longitudinal study of 3,649 Facebook users that suggests all interaction is constructive interaction—tie strength increased through direct communication and “one-click” actions alike. The effect was merely greater for interactions that took more effort. Though Burke says that the calculations are too complicated to pin down exactly how they compare against each other, composed interactions led to an increase in tie strength of 0.02 compared with no interaction at all. One-click actions led to an increase of 0.01. That’s something, right?  

It comes as little surprise, then, that Burke takes a much less cynical approach to all of this.

“Think about how great it feels to receive a lot of ‘likes’ on a post—you look through the list of likers and reflect on your relationships with them,” she said. 

“Which human instinct does the ‘like’ button appeal to more?” I asked. “Laziness or positivity?”

Burke—again, unsurprisingly—chose the latter. “If it were laziness, you wouldn’t respond at all. Pressing the ‘like’ button is more than a single click; there are all kinds of social implications about your relationship that go into that single key press. ‘Is it creepy? How long has it been since we last talked? Do I still care about her, and does she care about me? What will other people think?’ Pressing ‘like’ is a signal that you care.”

Indeed, a “like” is large. It contains multitudes. Like any other form of nonverbal communication, there’s so much that can be said, and in such a subtle way. Maybe that’s what we’re all after. In a domain that’s so cluttered with blinking ads, viral nonsense, and anonymous vitriol, a “like” is one way not to harsh someone’s vibe.

But to hell with subtlety. In the name of science, I decided to knock down the fourth wall of the upvote friendship complex by contacting a number of said friends directly and asking them for their take on our passive tendencies.

Their responses varied drastically. Some acknowledged laziness. Many ultimately pointed to the efficiency factor. A couple said nothing at all. One suggested I, you know, pick up the phone to talk. Another pointed out that technology eliminates the need to check in on our friends because we’re constantly doing the checking in for one another. Sometimes it’s all we really have time for.

“I browse through my news feed as an ADD habit at work just to take my mind off of something for 30 seconds,” said one. “I’ll like things because that’s basically all I can do at the moment.”

In taking sides on the matter, people seem to fall along a Turkle/Hampton divide. That is, they either echo the views of Rutgers professor Keith Hampton, who believes lightweight interactions are entry-level fodder for reviving latent friendships or engaging with our communities, or they take MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s more cautionary stance: that we use technology as a crutch, expect less of one another, and are lonelier as a result.

But did reaching out to my old friends lift a veil of complacency that had settled over us simply because Facebook enabled it? Not exactly. If anything, it seemed to confirm that people have and always will grow apart, even while remaining in the other’s corner, so to speak. 

“When the telephone first came out, people worried that it would destroy relationships, since it appeared to be a ‘cheaper’ way to communicate,” said Burke. “Same for email. But we’ve realized over time that the channel is less important than how you use it. You can say hi to someone in the hall every day and not feel close; conversely, getting a ‘like’ from someone you haven’t seen in three years can remind you how great they are.”

But not so fast! That still doesn’t answer the question of why we persist in falling in and out of “like,” but all at arm’s length. 

“Sometimes you just don’t know what to say to a friend, even if you support them, so it’s easier to click ‘like,’ ” said Burke.

Are we too overtaxed, Dunbar-wise, to meet for coffee, or is it simply that we like one another, but only in small doses? I guess if you’re ever keen on finding out, you could always just write an essay about it.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.