When Does Social Media Interaction Becomes Human Expression?
When Does Social Media Interaction Become Human Expression?
When Does Social Media Interaction Become Human Expression?

How many pages, comments and various shared pieces of content have you “Liked” during your time on Facebook? Dozens? Likely hundreds and even thousands for some Facebook users. Clicking “Like” has become akin to flashing an affirming thumbs up in support of whatever content happens to be associated with it, but how much weight does it really hold? Can something that takes so little thought and effort really have any meaning?

Sheriff B.J. Roberts of Hampton, Va., seems to think so. He fired five employees, including deputy Daniel Ray Carter Jr., for clicking the  “Like” button for the  “Jim Adams For Hampton Sheriff” page. Hampton was running against Roberts in a 2009 election. Carter and those supporting him feel that his actions should be protected by the constitution under the auspices of freedom of speech. The judge in the case has a different opinion, essentially saying that clicking a “Like” button is not a significant enough form of expression to be protected, thus allowing the firings.

When discussing this with Social Media Explorer CEO Jason Falls, he told me, “A ‘Like’ is nothing more than a virtual high-five and most in the industry don’t consider it a ringing endorsement of something. Yet the judge in this case says the lack of implicit statement means it isn’t speech. Ironically, that means the lack of implicit statement supports the notion it was a statement of endorsement – Kinda having it both ways. In the legal system, ambiguity normally leads to laws and rulings being stricken.”

When looking at the “Like” alone, I tend to agree with Jason. I mean, how many times have you clicked “Like” just to follow a brand page for instance? You’re essentially opting-in to let that brand share content to your news feed. Again, when you only look as far as the action of that single initial click this all seems trivial right? Not so much.

Facebook chimed in with a brief to the court on Carter’s case illustrating how much weight they feel a click of a “Like” button can bring. It said (legal mumbo-jumbo removed for ease of read):

“When Carter clicked the Like button on the Facebook Page entitled ‘Jim Adams for Hampton Sheriff,’ the words ‘Jim Adams for Hampton Sheriff’ and a photo of Adams appeared on Carter’s Facebook Profile in a list of Pages Carter had Liked …  the 21st-century equivalent of a front-yard campaign sign. In addition, an announcement that Carter likes the campaign’s Page was … shared with Carter’s Friends, and Carter’s name and photo appeared on the campaign’s Page in a list of people who Liked the Page … If Carter had stood on a street corner and announced, ‘I like Jim Adams for Hampton Sheriff,’ there would be no dispute that his statement was constitutionally protected speech. Carter made that very statement; the fact that he did it online, with a click of a computer’s mouse, does not deprive Carter’s speech of constitutional protection.”

Like (Photo credit: afagen)

See what happened there? It’s the chain reaction that happens after the “Like”. The dynamic of Facebook is that of a system that attempts to amplify social interactions in a way never before seen and still not duplicated. There are two main issues at hand here.

  1. The average Facebook user’s perception of how far a “Like” travels on Facebook, where it appears and it’s lifespan anywhere Facebook’s social data may be accessible.
  2. How the various parties (government, employers, law enforcement, friends, etc.) interpret the forms a “Like” can take when displayed on Facebook and possibly 3rd party sites and apps.

How Far a Like Travels

When working with clients I often take for granted my understanding of how social networks like Facebook work. I find myself having to break down how networks like Twitter and Facebook reach much farther than their web sites.

Facebook is the king of this approach. Thousands of apps and web sites use Facebook data as a way to augment and personalize your experience. They also use it as a way to authenticate who you are and make it easy to create an account on their 3rd party service. Looking inward instead of outward, I find that the average user doesn’t understand the various places on Facebook that their content is visible. Being head down in their own experience, they aren’t always privy to how others see their social interactions on the site.

Take the instance of Facebook’s relatively recent launch of timeline view for profiles. Out of site, out of mind … oh, until timeline revealed it all again. Your likes, all captured and catalogued for easy culling. Also, how many times have you gone back and looked at your profile to see what form the content you’ve shared or liked takes to others who might find it? I bet very rarely if at all.

Going back to the brief that Facebook filed, that initial “like” from Carter gave permission for a number of things to happen on their network. They called it, “the 21st-century equivalent of a front-yard campaign sign.” I would tend to agree.

How People Interpret a “Like”

It’s obvious by this court case and other various opinions  there isn’t a clear-cut way people interpret a Facebook “Like.” I, for the most part, always tell clients and folks at speaking gigs that a Like, retweet, share and other seemingly minor social media interactions should be considered endorsements.When sharing/resharing a piece of content or giving it a virtual thumbs up, it is more likely than not going to be seen as a personal endorsement of that content. This is, of course, one of the many things that make social media such a powerful medium for marketing. The social action combined by the transient trust that is passed on by a friend, influencer or family member amplify the perception of the one that receives it. A “Like,” retweet or share alone without any additional commentary leaves a bit to interpretation.

This all boils down to who is interpreting the social interaction. Are they someone in the “know” or are they someone completely unfamiliar with social media? As long as you have a clear understanding of how your customers or community interprets these social media interactions then you’re O.K., but legally these interactions are still being interpreted. As Jason said, “In the legal system, ambiguity normally leads to laws and rulings being stricken.” In business, legal implications dictate a lot of what’s possible and with social a part of your brand messaging, marketing and communications strategy, it’s only a matter of time before even something as small as a “like” might be cause for a review of your social media policy or input from legal.

 Do You Like this?

Needless to say, I try to take the “better safe than sorry” approach to liking on Facebook. I generally believe that  a “Like” can express quite a bit, especially to those you influence. So when does even the smallest of social media interactions become significant human expression? It sounds like the courts are deciding case by case and it won’t be long before law makers follow.


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About the Author

Adam Helweh
Adam is CEO of Secret Sushi Creative Inc, a strategic design, digital and social media marketing agency. He specializes in the convergence of design and technology to provide businesses with more intelligent and interactive ways to connect with customers and grow. His clients have included Edelman, Broadcom, Stanford Federal Credit Union, the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, Bunchball and others. He's also the co-host of the "SoLoMo Show", a weekly digital marketing podcast, and he has shared the stage with professionals from companies including Facebook, Virgin Airlines, Paypal, Dell and 24 Hour Fitness.

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