Myth #24: Likes and shares reliably indicate popularity.
Myth: Likes, shares, views, follower numbers and other quantitative measures on social media reliably indicate how popular, famous, or successful someone or something is. A growth of likes or followers always means a positive feedback and we can rely on them as trend indicators.
Busted: The perception that likes, shares, or the number of one´s followers and „friends“ on social media indicate popularity is widespread. Marketing suggests they are a shortcut to measure how well a brand or a person is doing. Parents and educators worry about teenagers’ obsession with how many hearts they get on Instagram. In election campaigns, journalists discuss political parties and candidates’ success in mobilizing by comparing followers and reactions. The idea that quantifiable social cues are an easy way to evaluate popularity is compelling. Unfortunately, it is also a misunderstanding, because a) they are very easy to manipulate and b) they mean different things depending on context and platform.
The idea of likes, shares and a large number of followers as popularity cues has incentivized people and organizations to artificially enhance these numbers. With the help of automated accounts (“social bots”), trolls, activists, and fake accounts it is very easy to feign popularity cues and make something or someone seem more “popular”. (#30) In fact, social media platforms report that they are deleting billions of these fake or maliciously manipulative accounts each year. Everyone can easily and for very little money buy likes, shares or followers; it is a common practice and turns these popularity cues in empty signifiers. In political mobilization this phenomenon has been labelled “astroturfing” – feigning popular support and grassroots mobilization with artificial activity and fake accounts.
Likes and shares are ubiquitous on social media. We all like or share something several times a day and hope that our postings get likes and shares from our imagined audiences. Turns out that people care more about who likes and shares rather than how many times: most important are close friends, spouses and family. Likes signal acknowledgement, but not always agreement or acceptance. As for political parties, social media users tend to follow not only one, but several parties, and cross-posting on more than one political group is quite a usual behaviour. People oftentimes share content without even reading it before sharing (clickbait!), and they share and comment postings they heavily disagree with. In fact, controversial content often generates high levels of engagement – many likes, shares and comments, but certainly not because of popularity or agreement.
Truth: The numbers of likes, shares, followers or comments provide low-level feedback, signalling acknowledgement, reach, engagement or interaction. This feedback is not necessarily and always positive. It can mean popularity, but it might as well indicate that something or someone is even unpopular or highly controversial. These numbers are easy to manipulate and should not be overestimated.
Source: Lauren Scissors, Moira Burke, Stephen Wengrovitz, What’s in a Like?: Attitudes and behaviors around receiving Likes on Facebook. CSCW ’16 Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (2016), https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2820066; Pablo Porten-Cheé, Jörg Haßler, Pablo Jost, Christiane Eilders, Marcus Maurer, Popularity cues in online media: Theoretical and methodological perspectives. Studies in Communication and Media 7 (2018) 2, 208-230.