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The Currency of Social Media and the Role of Likes According to Scientists: A Guide for Marketers and "Narcissists"

Nowadays, all social media users can be called marketers. They can position themselves on Facebook or Instagram as tough fishermen or the best wives in the world. Users can position themselves on Facebook as intellectuals who sing about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle while taking a shower.
Social media marketers intuitively consider the number of likes to be the main metric of success of self-promotion, and they're damn right! But let's figure out why.
Zlata Verzhbitskaia
Feb 26, 2020
Likes are mysterious, even to social media marketing (SMM) professionals. In fact, we know only one thing about them: organically liked posts (without using cheating) receive more coverage on social networks. That is how smart newsfeed algorithms work.

This knowledge is enough for most people, but I wanted to understand the underlying mechanisms. We all work in the attention economy and want to earn more by working less, so let's dig deeper.

Likes are money. Do you think they're just likes? No, they're real money.
In the 2010s, researchers began to study the phenomenon of likes intently. They even asked people to get an MRI while interacting with social networks normally. Observing the brain activity of the subjects while they liked posts and receive likes, the researchers noticed that the areas of the brain responsible for the so-called primary and secondary reinforcement (reward) were involved in these processes.
Primary reinforcement is a physical reward. According to evolution, a person receives a reward in response to correct behavior. This reward is a whole cocktail of special substances in the brain that bring a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. Primary incentives for reward are, for example, food, water, physical comfort, and sex. When the brain receives these incentives, the reward itself is chemical.Playfair is a transitional design. From the time of enlightenment in the late 18th century, the broad nib quills were replaced by pointed steel pens.
Secondary reinforcement occurs when there are any incentives associated with the primary ones. The objects of secondary reinforcement are money, attention, affection, good grades in school, and so on.
Brain responses to monetary rewards have been studied since 2000. As an instrument of experimentation, money was a good thing because it has a relatively objective value. Along with his co-authors, the Japanese scientist K. Izuma proved for the first time in 2008 that social rewards, or obtaining benefits from social reputation, activate the same areas of the brain that gets excited when receiving monetary rewards. Since then, this result has been obtained many times by other research teams and in other experimental conditions.

There's a funny coincidence. The publication of Izuma's study coincided with the appearance of the first like on the internet. The original "I Like It" (like) feature was launched on a small social network called FriendFeed a few months before Izuma announced his work. By the way, this network was later bought by Facebook.

Both likes and money have the property of discreteness (they can be counted) and represent relatively objective value—at least, for the human mind. That means that self-marketers on social media feel like they are receiving money when they get likes.

Likes are a social currency

awesome hats
"See how awesome our hats are! That's what you get when you collect a lot of likes."
We have an association with money again, but this time, the view is from the other side. Likes have a clear social nature compared to money, which is slightly abstract and can be packed in safes. Anthropologists (in particular, P. Adolfs and RA A. Dunbar) hypothesized in 2009 that the evolutionary history of the primates' brains and, especially, the human brain is directly related to the increasing importance of social interaction and group membership.

Simply put, heartless evolution forced the human brain to develop in such a way that it would be well-prepared to manage complex social relationships. But how could evolution force the brain to do something? By using chemical handouts and the chemical whip, or course. You get a feeling of pleasure if you communicate well with your surroundings or a sense of fear and anxiety if you communicate poorly.

The authors of the study "What the Brain Loves: Neural Feedback Correlates in Social Networks," which we referred to at the very beginning of the article, report that likes are a new phenomenon and a new concept, but they reflect a rather ancient human need. This need is the need to join a group of one's kind, gain recognition in the group, and occupy a high place in the group's hierarchy. When a person or business chases likes on social media, it's striving to take a strong and profitable place in society.

Likes Mean Attention at the Physiological Level

"What are you staring at? Alcohol is here."
When observing the brains of social network users, several research groups noticed that getting likes for a photo or other content is connected not only to the activation of the reward scheme but also to an increase in the concentration of attention. In particular, the Lauren E. Sherman group (Department of Psychology, Temple University, USA) showed that even likes on strangers' photos affect neural and behavioral reactions.

Scientists have found that young people who viewed photos on Instagram with a lot of likes showed better reactions in the brain areas connected to rewards and visual attention, and they were more likely to click the Like button, as well. When the subjects looked at photographs that had received few likes, their brains were not so excited and attentive.

We can interpret this result with sufficient confidence as this: Evolution has sharpened our brains in such a way that they realize, "Look, look! Everyone likes some garbage. Let's take a closer look! The whole pack can't be wrong. Perhaps this crap is extremely necessary for us. "

Of course, the pack may be wrong, but evolution does not pay attention to that. It "hits the masses," which means that it brings up a mechanism of a priori attention to what others have turned their to. And likes are a currency of attention.

Likes Mean Public Support, and the Brain Likes to Support

grumpy cat
"This is Kitty. Kitty is sad without your likes."
Scientists (in particular, R. Hayes) noted in 2016 that social media users consider likes to be a form of social support. Other researchers (for example, T. Inagaki) have shown that providing such support induces active reactions in the part of the brain called the ventral striatum. Here we again observe an occurrence of evolutionary encouragement. The ventral striatum is extremely involved in the chemical scheme of reinforcing "correct" human behavior.

Likes can serve not only as a method of providing support to another person but also sending the signal, "I am the same as you; we have a similar experience." Hayes proved that expressing support with likes also delights the person who offers them.

Evolution believes that it is important not only to integrate into social groups and fight for a place in their hierarchy but also to learn how to support the "good" members of these groups. It is also an important aspect of the survival of the whole human species.

Likes Are about Aesthetics

Notice how the sky is made, and how airy the castle's architecture is. It is completely unexpected.

Lauren E. Sherman and her colleagues' study, which we have mainly considered in this article, was intended to prove or disprove the idea that the reaction of the brain to receiving likes and pressing the Like button is a reward for prosocial behavior and learning to be social. Their research proved this idea, but scientists also found that the subjects' reward systems turned on more actively when they saw art images. For some reason, these images seemed more attractive to the experiment participants.

This aspect is still poorly studied. It's too early to draw significant conclusions, but we've noted for ourselves that something aesthetically beautiful on social networks also turns on the reinforcement scheme in users, and this fact should not be dismissed.

How Marketers Can Wrap Their Heads around Everything Above

We have a metric in the form of likes that is rather difficult to interpret and adapt in a practical sense. We have already sorted out the primary interpretation. Let's also get an understanding of a secondary one: practical and friendly.

Let's try to divide the information received into two groups: what authors get when they see likes under their content, and what those who like the content receive. Let's start with the first group:

Content authors receive likes as symbolic money. Businesses, bloggers, and media of various kinds still need to figure out how to convert them into real cash.
Content authors receive increased attention in the form of likes from those to whom the content is addressed. It makes sense to continue to hold this attention from a business point of view to convert it into money as well.
Content authors (as well as brands) receive approval and support in the form of likes from social network users. In business, it is possible to convert it into a brand image, and those who support it can be converted into the advocates and ambassadors of the brand.
The influence of a good artistic performance of a piece of content is also a plus for business. You need to make beautiful content, and, well, see the points above.
Now let's go through the second group:
People who like content get a feeling of belonging to a social group.
People fight for a place in the group hierarchy. This goal can be achieved with the help of likes, as well. People receive physiological reinforcement for such behavior.
People want to win the competition within the group. On the other hand, they give likes to express their support. Hence, they contribute to not only the group's most popular members but also to the survival of the entire group. This is called prosocial behavior, and a chemical reward is also received.
The seemingly frivolous likes have proved to be quite a serious matter.

Instead of Conclusion

The word "currency" was written in the heading for a reason. Likes are so much about money, and weighty proof of this is the experiments on hiding the number of likes (and sometimes reposts) that were conducted by Instagram this summer. At the end of September 2019, Facebook also began to conduct tests on hiding likes.

It was alarming for bloggers and influencers from the countries where the experiments were carried out to see that posts' coverage fell when the number of likes under them was hidden. Accordingly, it becomes more difficult for bloggers to prove to their advertisers that their blogs deserve advertising integrations and money.

It is possible that the strange hype around the like buttons arose because social media developers understood that likes are the currency of social networks, and they wanted to control their "foreign exchange market"—they wanted to strike a blow to the business of influencers and redirect "their" advertising money to themselves.

The potential concealment of the number of likes a post gets bothers marketers, bloggers, and the media. It is hardly possible to predict now whether social networks will take control of the format and metrics of likes or not. However, considering that such a danger is visible, it is necessary to take advantage of likes when they are still free and squeeze them as much as possible.

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