A New Twitter Feature May Help Solve Its Central Mystery: What Does a Like Mean?

It’s about time.

Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Perhaps it is because Twitter bears witness to our ever-changing world so well that we expect the site itself to remain the same. Small wonder, then, that users often respond with outrage when the company implements changes. Earlier this year, some declared the site dead when it announced an algorithmic update to its once chronological feeds. Similarly, others felt that its more recent increased character limits for some users represented a betrayal of everything that had once made it special.

It was surprising, then, to see users responding with something more like enthusiasm to the suggestion that another new feature might be on its way. On Monday afternoon, the company’s Jesar Shah wrote that she and her fellow developers had begun working on a tool that that would allow users to effectively bookmark tweets.

As announcements go, it was really more of a preview. Suggesting that the feature was a work in progress, Shah invited users to share thoughts about how it might be improved if and when it rolls out. Many responded enthusiastically to Shah’s tweet, variously calling it “wonderful” and complaining that it hadn’t been implemented years ago. In New York, Paris Martineau proleptically wrote on Tuesday, “Twitter, in a rare move, actually improved its product yesterday.

If a dedicated bookmarking tool appeals to Twitter’s most ardent users, it may be because it promises to clear up—or at least partially clarify—one of the site’s most enduring mysteries: What the hell is the “like” button actually for?

As most of the site’s users know, Twitter likes are visible to other users. That quality makes it easier to track the ways that public figures engage with the site, as the bot Trump Alert—which tries to help us “figure out what is going on inside the White House”—has shown. It also recently got Ted Cruz into trouble when he (or someone with the keys to his account) appreciatively flagged a pornographic tweet. Notably, though, it wasn’t immediately clear what that like signified, let alone how it happened. If you’re the kind of person who presses like on a porn tweet, are you trying to recommend it to others? Reminding yourself that you want to look at it later? Asking for more of the same?

Those same questions arise elsewhere on the site, even among those with less … provocative tastes. In 2014—when likes were still known as “favorites” and were represented by a star rather than a heart—Megan Garber observed in the Atlantic, “the beauty of the fave is its ambiguity.” Indeed, favorites and likes have always been an ambiguous sort of speech act. They clearly communicate something. But because they lack an agreed-upon grammar, it has never been clear what these communicative gestures actually do.

Where Facebook’s simpler thumbs up has always had ambiguities of its own, a Twitter like almost inevitably leaves one wandering through a swamp of semiotic ambiguity, partly because different contexts can radically reshape its import. Writing for Time in 2014, Jessica Roy rounded up more than a dozen possible meanings of the button.* Meanwhile, here in Slate, Will Oremus summed up a study that identified 25 distinct reasons that people might hit the button.

As those articles suggest, likes aren’t just about communication; they also sometimes serve a practical, personal purpose. Many Twitter users claim that they employ the feature to remind themselves of tweets that they want to return to later—maybe because they didn’t have the time to read a linked article when they first saw it, maybe because they wanted to laugh again at a funny joke later. Though Roy suggests that only “the truly sadistic” take this approach, it’s common enough that it ranks high on lists like the one Oremus reviewed.

The trouble is that this approach makes it even harder to translate the meaning of a like. If someone likes my self-promotional missive about one of my articles, is she saying that she read and appreciated my contribution to the conversation? (Probably not.) Or is he just suggesting that he wants to check it out later so he can troll me for it at some future occasion? (Very possibly.) Twitter’s structural uncertainty turns it into a bizarre guessing game, more like trying to read your dog’s mind than engaging in the global community.

Should Twitter roll out a bookmarking tool (hopefully one that will be easier to use than Shah’s animated GIF suggests), it may finally clear up some of that confusion. In the process, it may well serve a purpose for Twitter itself, since it will give the company more information about what we actually like (or at least acknowledge) as opposed to those things that simply arouse our curiosity. The like will, of course, remain ambiguous, but at least those ambiguities will say more about the ways we speak to each other than about the notes we scribble to ourselves.


*Many of the crueler possible formulations haunt me. What does it mean, I often find myself wondering, when a beloved former colleague likes replies to my tweet about R.E.M. but not my own note? Is she simply acknowledging that others have entered the conversation? Or is she slyly telling me that I’m an idiot who should delete my account?