The upvote has taken over the modern web. No matter how it’s implemented — likes, retweets, shares, or reblogs — it’s all based on the same concept: social approval. But as far as online interactions are concerned, the upvote has been the web’s greatest mistake.
To be clear, fruitful discussions can still sprout in the midst of online reputation systems, but there’s no doubt that these systems have had a real effect on how people view each other and connect with one another.
And in a lot of cases, the results point to the death of authenticity between users.
Self-Worth Isn’t Defined by a Number
Imagine the following scenario: you and your buddy post the same exact status update to Facebook. After 24 hours, you check back to see the like count of both updates. You received three likes (from your mom, your sister, and your wife) while your friend received thirty likes (mostly from friends, some of them mutual).
How many of us can say that we’d walk away without feeling a little hurt?
According to Time, this kind of thing happens all of the time on social networks. It turns out that one-in-three Facebook users leave the site in an unhappier state, especially when they browse their friends’ vacation photos. What kind of unhappy? The kind exhibited by feelings of envy, loneliness, and even anger.
This unhappiness stems from two causes: first, feeling inadequate when compared to social peers; second, feeling undervalued after receiving fewer comments, likes, and general feedback. This reduced sense of social self-worth affects both men and women.
When fewer likes translates into reduced self-worth, the “logical” response is to try to garner as many likes as you can in order to boost your self-worth, right? And that’s why, according to some, social media encourages narcissism. What started as an easy way to keep in touch has become all about me, me, me.
When every bit of content is open to the free judgment of others, it makes sense that we hide our flaws and flaunt our pride. We hold our tongue on unpopular opinions and post anything that might earn us a few more Internet points. In the worst of cases, we construct false personas that have no resemblance to our true selves.
We’ve been trained to define our self-worth by numbers and to see our peers as competition. Would this still occur without online reputation? Sure. Would it be as pronounced? Doubtful.
There’s a great motivational quote that deconstructs this phenomenon: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Like it or not, online reputation systems promote this kind of “highlight reel” behavior. The only way to win is to stop playing altogether.
How Social Karma Destroys Critical Thinking
When the “highlight reel” phenomenon bleeds through an online community, we get a similar outcome but on a larger scale: the “bandwagon effect.” While bandwagoning existed prior to the web, it has never been as easy as it is today with how globalized we are.
There’s no greater example of this than Reddit, a massive online community of communities where the bandwagon effect has several names: echo chamber, circlejerk, hivemind, and more. It’s also no secret that Reddit’s upvote system not only facilitates but even encourages bandwagon behavior.
Just a few days ago, CEO Carlos Ghosn ran an AMA on Reddit hoping to draw attention to Nissan’s development plan for autonomous cars by 2020. One user, who thought he noticed suspicious activity, accused the CEO of seeding accounts and planting questions as a PR stunt. Within 24 hours, he’d amassed over 2,000 upvotes.
Of course, that user didn’t have any real evidence other than a few cherry-picked examples, but that was enough for the Reddit AMA community. It didn’t take long for hundreds of users to lambast Nissan for their “PR trickery”, even though it turned out that the AMA wasn’t staged at all.
This is compelling evidence that shows how individual judgments are heavily swayed by social influence. The thinking goes like this: “There must be a reason why this post has 2,000 upvotes. I can’t find anything wrong with it, so it’s probably right.” Thus, we end up with these pitchfork mobs and downvote brigades so common on Reddit.
Not convinced yet? In a recent study, a social news site experimented by randomly assigning new user comments with an upvote, a downvote, or nothing. After 100,000+ comments were analyzed, the researchers concluded that comments that started with an upvote were 32 percent more likely to be further upvoted and had a 25 percent higher rating than the control group.
Would people be so quick to pull out their pitchforks if an accusatory comment didn’t have the support of 2,000 upvotes? Probably not. That number infuses content with authority. That isn’t what voting is meant to do, but it happens nonetheless. It’s a shortcut that circumvents critical thinking and enables people to jump to conclusions right away.
The Fatal Flaw of Reputation Systems
Online reputation systems would be great if they actually worked as intended, weeding out poor content in favor of quality content and encouraging members to contribute in meaningful ways. However, it rarely plays out that way.
The main issue is that a single upvote can mean a multitude of things. It’s an ambiguous measurement that’s meant to highlight quality, but quality means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In other words, it’s impossible to enforce the meaning of an upvote or a retweet or a like, so it ends up being arbitrary.
If self-worth is derived from Internet points, then the fastest path to self-affirmation is whatever brings in the most upvotes. What brings in the most upvotes? Anything that can exploit the bandwagon effect. If you know what the audience likes, all you have to do is pander to them and you’ll soon be swimming in the approval that floods your way.
At this point, authenticity is out the window. Nobody likes posting a comment and coming back to negative upvotes (in the case of Reddit) or zero likes (in the case of Facebook), so people tend not to voice their true opinions. Humor, wit, and memes become the shortcuts to self-worth.
Furthermore, these kinds of systems add an extra layer of abstraction between users. If a person’s value can be boiled down to how many upvotes they have, it becomes much easier to support or dismiss their contributions without even listening to what they meant to say.
Combined with the anonymity of the Internet, never has it been so easy to forget that people on the Internet are still people. Online reputation systems make it easier to suppress empathetic social behavior, which is not something we want if the end goal is authentic socialization.
Obviously these are all trends that are still being studied, and most of the conclusions only apply in the general sense. Not every Facebook user is a narcissist. The point is, however, that the upvote does have a damaging effect on online community interactions. Is the tradeoff worth it? Maybe, maybe not.
That being said, reputation systems are fantastic when pandering is a wanted behavior. For example, online auction sites like eBay would fall apart without a rating system for users. We want sellers to treat their buyers well, so it actually works in this kind of context.
But if you want genuine conversation, shun the upvote. It does more harm than good.