Facebook may have invented the ubiquitous 'Like' button but you may not be the social network's biggest fan when you find out exactly what happens each time you click it. What started off as a fun way to give a thumbs-up online has mutated into something that could generate billions of dollars for the world's most popular networking website.
Rihanna confronted me with a dilemma last month. If I wanted to see a sneak preview of her video, I had to 'Like' her on Facebook.
My emotions towards her are ambivalent, so I didn't particularly want publicly to pledge my allegiance, but after a few seconds of quandary, I clicked.
I don't remember a single frame of the video, but I haven't been able to forget the response of an old friend. Seconds later, Joe, who manages folk bands, wrote on my wall: "Daisy, you're only the 45,312,652nd person to Like Rihanna . . . Come and see one of my bands, who need the bloody support!"
I felt suitably chastised and began to ponder the insidious creep of the 'Like' button.
Some 800 million users worldwide have a Facebook account, but for those who haven't yet made the leap, the 'Like' button is a way to express your approval on the website. You can 'Like' a friend's photograph or status update, a brand, musician or company.
The 'Like' button is also on most other websites, so your 'Likes' on asos.com, for example, will be shared on your friends' Facebook pages. Since its introduction by the social network in 2010, the little blue thumbs-up symbol has quietly crept into every corner of our lives.
When you buy jeans at levis.com, the lurking thumb suggests you tell your Facebook friends about it. The symbol's infiltration is so global and deeply entrenched that an Israeli couple named their newborn daughter 'Like' in tribute last year, and the government of one German state has banned the button from its websites altogether, due to concerns about its privacy implications.
The button has even become the focus of a lawsuit in San Francisco by a group of members unhappy about the ramifications of clicking 'Like'.
The 'most Liked' brand in the world is the social network itself, with nearly 56 million 'Likes', closely followed by the online game Texas Hold'em Poker, then Eminem and YouTube. 'Likes' no longer result from people simply wanting to express their approval.
In the two years since its arrival, Facebook has unintentionally mutated the meaning of the word. Only 42pc of Facebook users agree that marketers should interpret 'Like' to mean that they are a fan or advocate of the company because, in reality, we are driven into liking brands by their carrot-and-stick enticements, such as money-off coupons, access to exclusive content or the chance to win a prize.
The question is, why do brands spend so much time chasing 'Likes' when they hold no monetary value? In fact, each one costs on average €1.34 in marketing, according to research by the social marketing and analytics firm Webtrends, which studied 11,000 Facebook ad campaigns in the US.
Coca-Cola is the top-liked product in the world, with 36 million 'Likes'. What many of these Coke lovers don't realise is that clicking the 'Like' button may mean that the company has the right to display your name and photo without your knowledge on its page, in advertisements about that page, or on any external website that has a social plug-in next to the content you like.
Legally, it also means that you are accepting that a story about your 'Likes' will appear in your friends' news feeds and on your wall, and that the liked company can then, in theory, post to your wall and send you messages directly.
What some regard as this new intrusion has already sparked ire among the online community. Twitter users have complained. One tweet even predicted the end is nigh for the network ("FB admits adverts will appear in your timeline. So long FB").
As Facebook tries to monetise its 800 million users worldwide ahead of a rumoured flotation in the spring, a group of Facebook users have gone to court in the US accusing the social network of unlawfully exploiting their preferences on the site for commercial gain and without their permission.
Facebook argues that there is no basis for the case. The tension between encouraging us to share more online, while monetising it and without losing our trust, is a tightrope walk for founder Mark Zuckerberg.
At Facebook's F8 conference last September, it announced changes that could transform its entire advertising arena.
Being rolled out now are a new set of actions -- 'Watch', 'Listen' and 'Read' buttons -- that make 'Like' seem a rather blunt tool. The question for those who have engaged in two years of frenzied 'Like fishing', is what exactly all this time and energy has been for. So far, it is Facebook that is the real winner in the rising tide of 'Likes'.
Every single time the button is clicked, 50 million times a day for brands alone, Facebook becomes more valuable, as it records an ever more detailed "social graph", which advertisers are desperate to plunder.
Although Facebook is now turning a good profit with its self-service ads, the real money lies in the huge amount of data we all share online. It has said that it will never sell this, but that doesn't mean it can't use it.
"Leveraging that data to help advertisers improve their targeting through setting up their own data exchange is very possible," says Nate Elliott, principal analyst at interactive marketing company Forrester Research.
"Once they figure out how to do that, they'll become insanely profitable, and they're almost there."
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