Is Facebook Transforming Our Language?

By , May 7, 2011

Language is constantly evolving, but sometimes the process is hard to understand. Facebook provides a great example.

Today, I read a Facebook post which both criticized and linked to a news article.  Then, after someone “Liked” that post, the person who’d posted it wrote: “A little confused–do you ‘like’ the [article] or my comment???”

Facebook has quickly transformed the meaning of two words: “Like” and “Friend.”  There is only one way to “connect” to someone on Facebook.  To connect with a person, you must “Friend” them; to connect with a Facebook “page,” you must “Like” it. You’ll only see posts in your Facebook “newsfeed” for folks you’ve “Liked” or “Friended.”

But of course, not all of my 400 Facebook “Friends” are really my friends, in any traditional sense. A few are family or friends; many are acquaintances; and many are people I’ve never met or interacted with outside of Facebook, but who share my interests.  (Sometimes I even “friend” a frenemy, to keep an eye on what they’re saying and doing on Facebook.)

Nor do I like all of the Facebook “pages” which I’ve flagged with the “Like” button. Instead, I mostly would just “like” to see what’s being posted on those pages.

Recently, Facebook has begun shifting the terminology for some activities from “Like” to “Share,” which is more accurate.

Complicating matters further, Facebook offers only two ways to signal your reaction to a particular post in your newsfeed: you can “Like” the post (and/or one or more of the comments to the post), or you can post a comment yourself.

But when I click the “Like” button for a post or comment, it doesn’t mean that I actually like (or agree with) what’s being said in a post or comment (or in a linked article).  Instead, I just appreciate that specific factual information (or an opinion) has been shared, even if I don’t agree with the message. Often, I “like” posts and links that reflect ideas that I find offensive and upsetting, because I believe it’s very important to listen to a wide range of views, and to know what others believe.

Some online communities offer different ways to signal a reaction to a post: some provide a “thank you” button, while others allow readers to click on either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon.

Using terms like “friend” and “like” creates confusion for many Facebook users, and leads to misunderstandings about what we mean when we use Facebook.  It’s quite possible that we’ll just accept these new, more ambiguous meanings for these words, which means that Facebook has helped transform the English language; it’s also possible that we (and/or Facebook, or its competitors or successors) will simply adopt or invent different words to use.

Related articles on other blogs:

  1. “Language Matters: Name Your Feature Carefully” (Actiance blog)
  2. “Entrenchment: ‘Befriend’ vs. ‘friend'” (Meaningful Games blog)

One Response to “Is Facebook Transforming Our Language?”

  1. Crystal Kelly says:

    I get very frustrated with the Facebook ‘like’ button as well. Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that I can give a simple ‘like’ to something but it’s too simple. So many times I wished for a ‘don’t like’ button. And now enters the Google +1 button……


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