Did You Actually Like That Article or Did You Just "Like" It Because Other People Did?

A new study in Science Magazine found new readers are much more likely to think positively of a shared item if it has "likes" on social sharing websites like Facebook and Reddit. The study found that "liking" features on these websites can produce artificial feedback (what they term "social influence bias") by altering user perception, suggesting the popular social networks may be limiting our ability to think for ourselves. 

Lev Muchnik of the University of Jerusalem, Sinan Aral of MIT and Sean J. Taylor of NYU used a randomized control experiment partnered with an undisclosed popular social sharing site to conduct their study, randomly voting on thousands of entries and tracking how they did afterwords.

They found that the very first vote an item receives can have an "outsized influence" on its overall perception. Positive feedback at the start of a posting made the subsequent piece of feedback 32% more likely to be positive, as compared to the control group.

The idea that readers perceive information differently based on the judgement of readers before them should not, of course, come as shocking news to anyone. Social sway in personal judgement is a long-standing element of human nature, one that can be understood well beyond (and pre-dating) the confines of Internet sharing. But, as Facebook has grown to reach well over 1 billion users, the fear is that social media sites are compounding the problem of stamping out independent thought.

A posting in Smithsonian Magazine on the new study, for example, says the results indicate that online users "are like sheep," disregarding the actual merits of an item when commenting or liking an item when swayed existing votes, and altering others' perception in return. They ask, "Does the herding effect of upvotes mean that if we’re not ourselves successful, we’d like to be on the peripheries of successes, regardless of how deserving that success may be?" There is a flood of questions about how youths growing up in the Facebook generation may be particularly influenced by social media's impact on perceptions of public perception and success.

But others have not been as pessimistic about the findings. Writers at Salon wrote the study helps indicate the fact that that "positivity is contagious," encouraging users to see the good aspects of a highly "liked" item and spread the positivity around. In fact, the study did find that items that were arbitrarily given a negative treatment were much more likely to be corrected by a positive like or comment in the preceding votes, suggesting a certain desire for fairness and optimism remains strong among users.

The study does, of course, offer just one angle on an incredibly complex phenomenon emerging on these platforms. For example, it fails to account for the fact that the "liking" feature may have a significant impact on the likelihood that an individual will read a story in the first place, and then like it. The liking feature may also reflect a variety of motivations that the study oversimplifies, as an individual's use of a "thumbs up" feature can range from simple acknowledgement of a post to full-on endorsement.