What's the difference between liking something and being a fan of something? Facebook is about to change the way its users think of that difference - and in doing so, reveals some fascinating insights about what the social media giant wants from its users.
The blog Inside Facebook reports that the social media giant is changing the way that people interact with their Pages product, switching from users connecting with the page by "becoming a fan of" it to simply "liking" the page. "People already 'Like' their friends' status updates, photos and links everyday," explains Facebook to its advertisers in a memo released by MediaMemo. "In fact, people click "Like" almost two times more than they click "Become a Fan" everyday." The memo goes on to explain that the decision was due to research indicating that users were more apt to "like" pages than to "become a fan of" them - a change that will result in advertisers being more present on people's Facebook feeds than before.
While this seems like a slight change, we are talking about the website that is consistently in the top two of web traffic worldwide - the company who effectively made the word "friend" into a verb, at that - the semantics of the change are quite fascinating. Simply put, liking something is different than being a fan of something. "Like" in the verb form used by Facebook refers to a fondness for something - a form of attraction weaker than love, and distinct from it in important ways. "Fan," on the other hand, is short for a fanatic - a person with an intense, occasionally overwhelming love and and enthusiasm for something. "Being a fan of" something is different than "liking" something because fandom implies more dedication and more enthusiasm. Users are acclimated to indicating fairly strong connections with the users and pages that they want to have more present on their feeds by "becoming a friend of" someone or "being a fan of" something - switching to "liking" things as a means of making them more present collapses this commitment. Will users also eventually switch to "liking" their friends rather than friending them, as well?
The shift away from fandom on Facebook also indicates another fascinating quality of social media: the breaking down, if only on a slight level, of what social scientists term "parasocial interaction". "Parasocial interactions" are one-sided relationships in which one party knows a great deal about the other, but the other does not - the sort of relationships that people may have with celebrities they like, or that performers have with their audiences. Facebook users expect to interact with other users, even if those users are celebrities - hence the huge number of comments in the photo sections of most celebrity pages, despite the lack of any significant replies to these comments.
The abandonment of "becoming a fan" of pages may even indicate what it is that Facebook as a company wants from its users. In Scaling the Web: A Parasocial Interaction Scale for World Wide Web Sites, researcher John Hoerner of the University of Alabama asserts that the traditional person-to-person structure of fandom gives way to a person-to-construct relationship in the online setting. "The literal, mediated personality from the newscast or soap opera of the past [around which the original PSI-scale was framed] is gone," Hoerner explains. "The design metaphor, flow of the web experience, and styles of textual and graphic presentations of the information all become elements of a website persona and encourage parasocial interaction by the visitor/user with that pesona." So, in a sense, what the Facebook team are doing as they collect an ever-increasing data set about their users is creating the ultimate parasocial interaction - they know everything about us, but we know virtually nothing about them. We the users become the object of fandom. In that regard, "being a fan of" something on Facebook doesn't make sense - but Facebook wanting to know what it is that we "like" does.