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The power of the 'like' button
Real-time human connections
The humble ‘like’ button has a complicated history. It’s been around in various forms for decades! There’s even a Wikipedia page all about it. In the last decade and a half it’s been a critical part of most social platforms, used to feed and inform the algorithms that determine which content gets shown to people.
It's contribution to algorithmically-driven cultureis often problematic and complex. That’s not what I’m talking about today. I’m focusing on a much simpler use of the like button. Forget algorithms. Forget how companies use the like button strategically, and often cynically. I’m talking about its use as a response to written work.
The real, honest power of the like button, for me, has always been its ability to directly connect an audience and a creator. I’m not referring to someone liking a tweet or Facebook post (or Substack Note). Those are relatively throwaway pieces of content, quickly consumed, and a ‘like’ in those contexts can mean all sorts of things. That’s a more specifically social interaction. What I’m interested in is someone ‘liking’ something more long-form, such as an essay or story. Liking a thing rather than a person. It’s a way for the reader to reach out across the planet from wherever they are to wherever you are, pat you on the back, and whisper “you did good.”
I’ve been writing serial fiction online since about 2015, publishing a new chapter each week. A flurry of likes on a newly posted chapter tells me several things: people are happy to receive a new instalment, there aren’t any major errors in what I just sent out, and the project overall remains viable. This happens every single week and it’s a fantastic, subtle motivator.
But! It gets better.
Where the ‘like’ gets really interesting is once you’ve got a decent back catalogue of work, such as multiple chapters in an ongoing serial. Somebody liking chapter 1 of your serial is lovely. If they then like chapter 2, a few minutes later, that’s exciting. The same reader liking chapter 3 a few minutes after that is a small piece of magic.
It’s a real-time notification that another human is reading your book right now and enjoying it. They might read a handful of chapters, or they might binge the entire thing in a single day. Perhaps they take a break for lunch, then come straight back.
Either way, it’s a connection. Reader and writer acknowledging each other but in a quiet way. It’s a fast but meaningful interaction. We’re not going to take it further and get into a major exchange; the reader is still in their private space, enjoying the writing. The writer can pay as much or as little attention as they want. But it’s an appreciative nod towards each other. A tip of the hat.
Buying a book vs reading a book
I’ve always found it strange that ebooks don’t have this kind of functionality built in. Or perhaps they do, but only for Amazon’s internal analytics teams? A traditionally or indie published author only ever really knows that someone bought their book. It’s much trickier to know if they ever actually read it. I mean, we’ve all got A Brief History of Time somewhere on a shelf, right? A sale is important to actually making a living, but it doesn’t really tell you much in terms of what readers are doing with the text.
If you publish print books or ebooks, the only way to know if someone is actively reading your book is if you happen to see them with it on a train/bus/in a cafe. You might see discussion separate to the reading - conversations elsewhere, after the fact. Here on Substack, or on Wattpad, you get much more granular feedback.
Not every reader hits the like buttons, of course. They might love the work, but have no interest in engaging in that manner. They might be so engrossed that they don’t have time to click a like. That’s all totally fine. But when someone - a stranger - embarks on a binge of your work, and nods in your direction, it’s a thrilling thing.
Research has shown that the only thing better than clicking ‘like’ is upgrading to a paid subscription
On the other hand
As with all social tech innovations there can also be a dark side. Becoming obsessed with receiving likes, in any context, can be a fast way to finding yourself in a bad place. If you expect and crave the likes, what happens to your self-esteem and confidence if a new chapter doesn’t receive any? What if nobody does a binge read for days or weeks?
You don’t have to Google very far to find endless articles and reports about the damaging effects of the ‘like’ button. Its harmful impact on mental health, especially of young people. The ways it ruined social media and the internet more widely. And I don’t really disagree with any of that! Incorporating ‘likes’ into specifically social interactions is a fast track to bad times: nobody wants their social skills to be continuously reviewed. When you go to the pub or out for a meal, you don’t expect to have immediate critical feedback from strangers.
It’s different when it’s applied to ‘product’, I think. To actual, real output, rather than human behaviour. A ‘like’ on a chapter of my book isn’t a comment on me specifically, but on the story. Sure, I’m extremely close to the material, so there’s always an element of it feeling personal, but there’s enough distance there for it to be more productively useful. It’s closer to a review than to some form of social approval.
A ‘like’ should be seen as an interesting metric. A measure, not a goal in itself. The aim is not to accumulate likes, because in isolation they have no real value. A like is representative of achievement but mustn’t become the entire purpose. I write so that I can tell stories, not so that I can get ‘likes’. I’m not engaging in a popularity contest (with myself?).
Receiving likes can be really effective as positive reinforcement and encouragement; but beware of a lack of likes becoming a focus.
What’s your stance on this? Is the ‘like’ button a force for good or evil?
Schools are back, which means a return to routine. I had a decent summer with a trip to Disneyland Paris that was more inspiring than I expected, plus lots of frisbee and badminton with the boy. Here in the UK the weather has only just remembered that it was supposed to be summer, mind you. ☀
But yeah, can’t complain about Norwich looking like this:
️The school summer holiday also drastically reduces the time I have to write this newsletter. If I were sensible, I’d have reduced the output accordingly. Instead, I barrelled along at the normal pace, which was frequently a mad scramble. Hence, being glad to be back to having some writing time. Luxury!
Not coincidentally, I’ve also found time to get back to sketching. Here are some recent efforts:
As always, it’s all practice towards one day doing my own comic.
This last week I also was mentioned in a Note:
It’s hard to express how I felt at having one of my books (in actual print form, too!) positioned alongside work by other writers, let alone of this calibre. Now, obviously I know that Daniel wasn’t making any claims here about relative quality (thankfully), but that image is still representative of a huge amount of time and effort.
Focusing on the negative is so easy, that it’s important to celebrate these moments. In a week that pushed the uglier side of online discourse to the surface, Daniel’s note was the perfect reminder of how communities can support each other and make life that little bit better.
I’m hosting today’svideo chat! Full details here, and do come along and say ‘hi’ at 2pm UK time.
If you like urban fantasy, in which my Tales from the Triverse has at least one foot, you’ll probably find something of value in this Urban Fantasy Freebies giveaway.
Prefer something more overtly fantastical? Check out this Fantasy Realms free reads giveaway instead.
I finished Return to Monkey Island over the weekend. What a perfect ending. Endings are so difficult - might need to write about this one in more detail.
Thanks for reading. I’ve been working on some new online course content - more on that soon, maybe next week.
In the meantime, have a good, creative week.
A part of me just died as I wrote that phrase.