Update: A rewritten version of this paper has been published in New Media & Society. Please use the following citation: Gerlitz, Carolin, and Anne Helmond. 2013. “The Like Economy: Social Buttons and the Data-Intensive Web.” New Media & Society 15 (8): 1348–65. doi:10.1177/1461444812472322. [link]

Co-authored paper by: Carolin Gerlitz (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Anne Helmond (University of Amsterdam). Paper presented at the DMI mini-conference, 24-25 January 2011 at the University of Amsterdam.

Introduction
Different types of social buttons have diffused across blogs, news websites, social media platforms and other types of websites. These buttons allow users to share, bookmark or recommend the webpage or blogpost across different platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Reddit, Delicious, Stumbleupon, etc. The buttons often show a counter of how many times the page/post has been shared or recommended: x likes, x shares, x tweets. These likes, shares and tweets may be approached from a new media studies perspective as new types of hyperlinks and from an economic sociology perspective open up questions about the increasing interrelation between the social, technicity and value online. Within new media studies the hyperlink has previously been studied as a form of currency of the web establishing an economy of links (Walker 2002 & Jarvis 2009) and as an indicator of a discursive relationship (Rogers 2002).

The economy of links describes the link as a currency of the informational web in which search engines use hyperlinks to look at the relations between websites in order to establish a ranking. The term informational web is often used to describe the world wide web as a publication medium for publishing content (Ross 2009) and is characterized by the linking of information (Wesh 2007).2 In this web search engines act as main actors to be able to navigate through all the information by recommending pages based on authority measures.

According to social networking site Facebook “the informational Web is being eclipsed by the social Web” (Claburn 2009). In contrast to the informational web where search engines focus on links between websites, the social web “is a set of relationships that link together people over the Web” and “the applications and innovations that can be built on top of these relationships” (Halpin & Tuffield 2010) and is characterized by the linking of people (Wesh 2007).3 Within the social web search engines and social media platforms look at the connections between people and their relations to other web users or web objects. Facebook popularized the term Social Graph “to describe how Facebook maps out people’s connections” (Zuckerberg 2009). As Facebook considers its services inherently social and its plugins and buttons are called ‘Social plugins’ we summarize the activities they generate as so-called “social activities.”

Where Google can be seen as the main agent of the informational web and the regulator of the link economy, Facebook is currently seen as the emerging agent of the social web. Especially the company’s recent efforts to make the entire web experience more social mark the advent of a different type of economy which is based on social indexing of the web: the Like economy. Key elements of this economy are the social buttons, the activities they generate and the way they connect Facebook with the entire web.

According to Facebook, liking and sharing are valuable for users and the company because they enable to experience the web more socially. A similar connection between the social and economic value has been developed by Adam Arvidsson (2009) with his idea of an ethical economy in which value creation is based on collective negotiation and in which economic value creation is related to the quality of social bonds that are generated. Within this paper we want to question the centrality of social dynamics and social relations as key driver for platform engagement and the Like economy. Through merging a new media with an economic sociology perspective, we will shift attention away from the users and the social to the impact of issues on social activities, as well as their interrelation with technicity and the fabric of the web. Based on an extensive empirical study of button presence and engagement within a sample of 592 URLs, we ask how issues, technicity and the social create a productive assemblage of value creation in an emerging Like economy.

In what follows, this paper aims to address these questions by first looking at the history of different types of web economies over time. How do these ‘new’ social activities central within the social web relate to the hit and link economy of the informational web? What creates engagement and how does this engagement organize the fabric of the web and sociality? And finally, what are the perspectives of a Like economy?

Download full paper as PDF: GerlitzHelmond-HitLinkLikeShare.pdf

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Update: A rewritten version of this paper has been published in New Media & Society. Please use the following citation: Gerlitz, Carolin, and Anne Helmond. 2013. “The Like Economy: Social Buttons and the Data-Intensive Web.” New Media & Society 15 (8): 1348–65. doi:10.1177/1461444812472322. [link]