August 13, 2010

It’s, Like, So Confusing

Following up on last week’s post about how Facebook is changing the meaning of “like” online, I’ve been noticing more disconcerting behavior on Target’s Facebook page.

Until yesterday, Target hadn’t posted anything to its wall since July 26th. It wasn’t clear if they were building a strategy internally, but the new post makes it obvious that they’ve decided to ride out the storm by ignoring it and letting their customers duke it out on their wall. The new post links to specials for college students and makes absolutely no reference to the controversy. As of this morning, there are 303 comments on that post and 367 people “like” it.

Target clearly isn’t going to mention the issues, respond, or engage in a conversation on Facebook. Interesting strategy, and we’ll see how it plays out. But as I’m watching this case study develop, some themes are emerging and raising some problematic flags.

As one might expect after what seems like an eternity online, the commenters are no longer mostly people upset with Target’s actions. And predictably, as seems to happen with so many discussions about politics and homosexuality, the discussion is devolving pretty quickly. Some users are flagging each other for bad behavior, just because they disagree with the person’s opinions. Some are insulting other commenters, and the whole wall is becoming a referendum on a political issue. I haven’t read every comment, but I’m confident Godwin’s Law is proven there somewhere.

None of this is new behavior to be sure, but has this happened before on such a mainstream company’s page, especially while the company itself is ignoring it? The fact that it’s Target makes for some interesting issues.

For example, if you read a sample of the comments closely, you’ll find a potentially worrisome information literacy problem. If you go back to the beginning of the comments thread on the August 12 post, there are some users whose entire comment consists of, “If you don’t like Target, why do you ‘like’ this page?” or “If you don’t like Target, why did you become a fan of them?”

It’s unclear to me whether these folks realize that users have to like the page in order to comment or if they’re just being snarky about it. Even though these folks had to “like” the page themselves in order to leave their own questioning comments, I’m leaning towards believing that they truly don’t realize that “like” now means “comments enabled.” As David Lee King said on my previous post, “it looks like the ‘Like’ but­ton is really an entrance fee/ticket, or the ‘door’ to the event….” But there’s a large group of people out there that don’t realize that “like” now has subtext and is loaded with new meanings and requirements. I worry that they truly don’t understand that the boycotters have no choice but to “like” Target if they want to participate in the discussion.

"Why are you guys even a fan?"

Other commenters honestly can’t seem to understand why someone who is upset with Target would be posting on the company’s wall in the first place. It seems that there’s still a disconnect between “a company’s web presence” and an interactive, community.” Heck, this is true even for Target, which continues to ignore the community and treat its page as a one-way announcement channel. A lot of folks participating in this thread haven’t made the mental leap from “Just Target” to “Target + Others” as a new norm, even though they’re able to scratch their heads in the comments themselves.

"I just wanted to 'Like' a Target page...."

Close reading of the threads also makes it clear that quite a few Target fans didn’t know anything about the controversy until they visited the Facebook page and saw the comments. This further confirms the ongoing switch from a small number of “official,” mainstream news sources to personal news streams on social networking sites. More and more people are getting their news online from their networks, not from newscasters. (Incidentally, if you need to make a case for why your library should be on Facebook, this is a pretty good reason – in order to be part of your users news stream.)

"What did Target do?"

Overall, there’s a lot going on here, and I encourage you to keep tabs on Target’s page to see how it plays out. It can be difficult to dip into the emerging incivility and disrespect, but it’s educational, especially for any organization that has a Facebook presence. These types of cases are illustrating how the shift from us going out to find information to it coming to us, filtered through our networks, will have an impact on organizations. They also expose a whole host of other issues, from information literacy gaps to privacy concerns. For example, I was going to erase the names of the commenters in the screenshots, but technically it’s all public information, so why hide it? Do the people leaving rants and invectives on the Target post/wall truly understand that those comments are completely public?

On Facebook, 831 people “like” confusion, but I’m not sure anyone really likes it in the Target context.


12:35 pm Comments (2)

August 3, 2010

When Like Doesn’t Mean Like

Subtitle: Or, Using Like to Target Target

If you’re watching the Target Facebook page right now, you’re seeing another social media disaster on par with Nestle’s debacle back in March. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion, but it’s another great case study for us about what not to do online.

Hint: don’t set your page to show only your posts first and then abandon it when controversy arises. If you’re not familiar with the current controversy, you can go here to read about Target’s donation to a homophobic gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota. Be sure to click on “just others” on Target’s wall to see the angry, former customers and pornographic spam.

When Like Doesn't Mean Like

I’m sure they’ve spent the last few days bringing in consultants to come up with a strategy for how to deal with this, but it’s surprising that someone hasn’t already said, “We need to at least post *something* on our Facebook page and acknowledge what’s happening.” So far, Target doesn’t seem to be learning from others’ past mistakes, so don’t fall into the same trap if this ever happens to you.

I think that’s the biggest, immediate takeaway for libraries and nonprofits (well, for everyone, really), but personally I’m more fascinated right now by how people have been forced to give the term “like” different meanings in different contexts because of the box Facebook has forced them into, which this situation illustrates so well.

We first saw this type of attempt to subvert the term “is” in Facebook’s early years. Long-time users remember when your status update automatically included the word “is” so you were forced to use adjectives, present progressive tense, or future tense. Nothing could happen in your past unless you were creative in your use of language, which some people went out of their way to be. Others just started ignoring the “is” and writing whatever they wanted. You might also remember the petition many of us “signed” asking Facebook to remove the “is.” It all seems so quaint now, but those two letters went from being a new way to describe ourselves to being too restrictive pretty quickly.

Now we’re running into another limit that the Facebook one-size-fits-all box forces on us – “like.” We’ve all seen, and maybe even written, “dislike” on a friend’s status update when they say they have a cold or something bad has happened. And yet we still go ahead and click on “like” in order to signify some type of solidarity, even though the term is wholly inaccurate. Sometimes we specifically go out of our way to add a comment “I don’t really ‘like’ this” or “liking even though I don’t like.” But we don’t really have any other options, do we?

When Like Doesn't Mean Like

And even though Mark Zuckerberg has said Facebook might someday add a “dislike” button (which it won’t out of fear users’ “dislike” of companies will drive advertisers away), that wouldn’t really cover it, would it? My range of emotions doesn’t run the gamut from A to B, but instead includes a million shades of grey in between, just as I don’t always talk solely in the present progressive tense.

So when an issue like the Target controversy comes up and I want to leave a comment on Target’s wall saying I’m now boycotting them and why, I have to first “like” Target in order to leave that comment. Talk about cognitive dissonance. I can then add my thoughts and if I want to show support for other protesters, I can “like” their comments, which I do (some more than others), but “like” probably isn’t the word I would have chosen given my shades of grey.

The only satisfaction I can really get is when I leave my comment and then “unlike” Target, but *that* update doesn’t get posted to my wall – only the “like” does.

When Like Doesn't Mean Like
“I do not think that word means what you think it means”

I recently read Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget, which for the most part I loved. I wrote a little about Lanier’s take on the future of authorship, but it also made me think about the way websites force our lifesize selves into one-size-fits-all templates. (Sorry I can’t quote a relevant piece, but I’ve lent my copy out, so I don’t have it handy – a blog post for another day.) At least software like WordPress lets bloggers choose from a variety of templates and even edit them, but it made me glad that I’ve personalized my own site to be truly unique, just like me.

However, Facebook now has 500 million users, most of whom don’t have their own websites as a unique presence for themselves online. Instead, we have hundreds of millions of average users who all look the same and conform to Facebook’s interface constraints as their major representation on the web. If it wasn’t for the picture, it would be difficult to tell one John Doe FB profile from another in Google’s search results.

The lowest common denominator used to be a yellow page listing, but now it’s become Facebook’s profiles. At least a Facebook user can personalize the text in her profile, but we’re all stuck with “like.” That word is taking on a lot more responsibility since we have to figure out ways to use it to convey other meanings. How do we indicate when “like” means don’t like, favorite, bookmark, agree, disagree, support, bummer, share, read this later, funny, and more?

Facebook eventually wised up and removed the “is,” but how will it route around advertisers to provide the spectrum beyond “like?” It’s boxing itself, as well as us, into a corner, which I definitely don’t like.