like

A lot of people will think this next statement fits into that “you promised me flying cars, and all I got was 140 characters!” screed that the Valley doesn’t really innovate anymore. But I’m increasingly a believer that the thing that has changed my communication more than anything else in the last five years isn’t the poke or the tag or Snapchat or Instagram. It’s the humble “Like” — or the other versions of it, like Twitter’s “favorite.”

I struggle to call the Like an “innovation,” because that word is so loaded. I mean a true innovation should include some sort of coding sophistication, right? But the Like is unquestionably a social innovation. And over the last decade, it has  profoundly changed the way we communicate.

The good and the bad with Likes are both wrapped up in the fact that they are so passive. You do little more than blink at a button to register your thought. A Like costs you absolutely nothing. It’s like the digital version of that fratty “what’s up” head nod.

To be sure, the scourge of Likes is awful in some ways. Think about birthdays. Because it’s so easy to “Like” someone a happy birthday of Facebook, many people don’t do more meaningful things, like send a card, call, or even send an email. To wit, even Facebook’s own efforts to extend these ubiquitous wishes into gifts have mostly failed. Remember that Hallmark slogan about caring enough to send the very best? The Like is the polar opposite of that idea. It is literally the very least you could do, short of doing nothing.

But because it is so passive — almost unconscious — the sheer wave of Likes is overwhelming. And that makes something awesome happen: You feel like 75 people know its your birthday even if they only barely acknowledged it. And as Likes and favorites permeate all of our social media, it creates a connective thread between people that is subtle but meaningful.

As many people are painfully aware, I post a lot of pictures of my kids on Instagram and Facebook these days. Increasingly I enjoy the range of people that Like the photos. On a recent one, it was as varied as Jim Breyer, a girl I warred with in college, my best friend in elementary school who moved away and whom I haven’t physically seen in 30-plus years, my sister, and a woman I worked with at my first job in Silicon Valley.

The crazy quilt of who sees and takes that moment to click a button of assent on something may not indicate real, true, deep friendship. But that doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. It’s like royalty payments. They add up. It’s a reminder for me of my life to date. The different relationships I’ve had, the different people who’ve been vital to my life at periods, even if they aren’t anymore. It’s a daily, subtle version of that show, “THIS IS YOUR LIFE!”

I’ve long believed that even the bare minimum of keeping up over social media does replicate some of that intimacy you had when you had a locker next to someone in school or worked in the next cubicle from them. That daily in and out of keeping passive tabs, knowing when they got a haircut or lost weight.

My 20-year high school reunion is next year. I only regularly keep in touch with one person I went to high school with. Still, I imagine the conversations will be deeper and richer than they were at my 10-year reunion, because I am vaguely aware of where people are, what they are doing, and how cute their kids are. I can ask better questions than “what have you been doing for the past 20 years?” That’s all down to Likes.

It’s not a surprise that the subtle power of Likes has extended into the enterprise. Yammer’s single most used functionality for our newsroom is the humble Like. It’s a way of the editors telling the reporters we saw something, we’re hopping in a post, we’re okay with a change, we agree with an art element — all in the efficiency of pushing a button.

Asana recently took this to the next level with “Hearts” — a way of even voting on what initiative a company should focus on. On both Yammer and Asana, Likes and Hearts actually increase productivity and compensate for real-world meta data like a nod that you lose not all working in the same room. Best of all: It actively decreases inbox clutter.

So as Likes have made the jump from consumer to enterprise, they’ve gone from something that’s debatably good or bad to something that’s unquestionably good. The idea of efficiency in relationships and friendships is a little icky to some people; but at work, it’s awesome.

It’ll be interesting to see how this can be expanded to even more apps in the future. The rating for Uber drivers is like a more data rich “Like” — ditto the “How’d you like this restaurant?” notes from OpenTable. Any effort at really fixing email should have a robust Like function. Something that’s a head nod, “I got this.”

The Like is powerful, because it’s merely a digital version of what already exists in the physical world. It doesn’t represent a degradation of human relationships — rather it’s the extension of little niceties we do already. It’s like the glance up and smile when you pass someone on the street, the admiring of someone’s outfit in the break room, even if you don’t really like that color on them. The “How are you?” when you don’t really care about the answer, but want to fill silence.

There’s a backlash against people who over-favorite and over-Like everything. But like eye contact in a small town, I’ve decided I like it. Humanizing the Internet can’t possibly be a bad thing.

[Image courtesy cambodia4kidsorg]