I have performed more u-turns than the average unscrupulous politician on the issue of social media share buttons on this site, and in particular with regard to Facebook Like and Google +1 buttons. After adding them and removing them with a disconcerting regularity, I have placed them on the pages, yet again. It remains to be seen how long they will be on this site, as I am still unconvinced of the merits of the Like and +1 buttons, and I would like to explain why that is in my view.
It is not to say that these buttons are totally useless: the Like and +1 buttons certainly have their uses, but limited nevertheless. They represent a relatively easy method for visitors to demonstrate a positive sentiment, without the hassle of sharing and commenting on the entity. These actions may even lead to more traffic from the respective social media platforms, Facebook and Google+. But as I will attempt to argue later, Likes and +1s are of mainly indirect significance as far as web entities such as web pages are concerned.
Where these buttons are not particularly useful is in comparing the relative popularity of web content, that is to say looking at the number above or next to the buttons. In other words, I cannot agree with a statement along the lines of the more Likes and +1 a web entity has, the more popular / positively received it is. There are numerous reasons, and I am going to list the following, in no particular order and without any claim to completeness.
Firstly, not everyone has a Facebook or a Google account and uses it constantly. Sure, many people do have an account, and it may be argued that given the large number of users of Facebook and Google+, they would reasonably represent a wide spectrum of people, as such representative of the whole population, but the point is that there are many people yet to use Facebook or Google+ and that there are many inactive users, and that population of Facebook and Google+ users is smaller than the population of those who use internet, which in turn is smaller than those who do not have access to the internet or refuse to use it.
Secondly, not all sites have placed Like and +1 buttons, and not every user of Facebook or Google+ has installed browser extensions which allows to Like or +1 in the absence of buttons. In other words, even if someone has an account on Facebook or Google+, he or she may not be able to like or +1 the web entity, even if he or she might or would have done so, had there been a button on the site.
To labour the point, imagine a Venn diagram if you will of two circles, one consisting of Facebook and Google+ users, and another of websites that have placed Like and +1 buttons: there will be a substantial overlap, but not total.
Thirdly, the number displayed above or next to the Like and +1 buttons include actions in the respective social media platforms, and people may be engaging on the social media platform without actually visiting and reading all the content that had been shared, liked, and +1d. Differently put, meta-engagement unrelated or negative to the thing shared, liked, and +1d can increase the figures next to the Like and +1 button.
Fourthly, there is no qualitative differentiation, a Like is a Like, and a +1 is a +1, whoever, wherever, and however something is liked and +1d. Some people seem to be compulsive likers and +1ers / +1ists (I do not know if there is a widely accepted word for people who would +1 anything in their sight), Stakhanovites in slacktivism, others will like and +1 things sparingly. As mentioned above, Likes and +1s accrue in meta-engagement, so the sentiment might not be positive: it is possible for something to have lots of Likes and +1s, for being strongly disliked in their respective social media platforms.
Let’s say you totally disagree with this article, because you think it’s a load of rubbish, and you decide to share it on Facebook or Google+, tearing it into pieces in your Facebook or Google+ post. That act of sharing this article still means that the number next to the Like or +1 button on this page will increase, and if someone agrees with your analysis thus vehemently disagrees with the content of this page and likes or +1s your post, then those likes and +1s will be added to the figure on this page. Despite giving an impression of precision, numbers really do not tell the whole story, yet because of the exactitude they exude, people project importance and positive sentiment to them, after all why would anyone like or +1 something that they do not like?
Fifthly, these numbers can be easily and cheaply increased by paying a trifling sum to a number of businesses. A quick search on the internet will reveal that hundreds if not thousands of Likes and +1s can be ordered – and they apparently are genuine – for a few dollars. While Facebook and Google will try to rid of fake accounts, it is a cat-and-mouse game, and given the existence for these services for a long time, the numbers are skewed in some instances to be any accurate reflection of any genuine quantity let alone quality.
Also I have always assumed, perhaps wrongly, that Likes and +1s are really important within the landscape of Facebook and Google+, that is to say Likes and +1s on the posts in which a link was shared are important, rather than those given directly on the site. Sharing something on the wall or stream is a deeper degree of engagement, whether positive or negative in sentiment. It is reflected in the visibility on the social media platforms: shared or sent posts rather than Likes and +1s are likelier to appear to others.
So, given all of the above, why have I reinstated the Like and +1 buttons? Why not? They might turn out to be very useful if I am wrong (as I often am), and even if they are essentially useless, they do no harm, and are not particularly obtrusive. In some cases, people might ‘just’ like or +1 instead of sharing, but I suspect such would be quite rare. The buttons are likely to remain, until the next time I feel I need to move things around on the site.