Former Facebook employee Leah Pearlman explains how validation came to rule the internet, then ruin it.
The Facebook like button just sort of slipped into our lives. One day it appeared on our feeds, and suddenly we were all desperate for likes—or more precisely for a measure of how important our thoughts and opinions are to others. And this mechanism basically changed the operation of the internet. Today, all social platforms have a version of the like button and entire companies, ideas, and movements sink or swim thanks to their like tally. Producing internet content could make me biased, but to me it feels like the introduction of the like button affected the internet as dramatically as the iPhone.
So how did this all come about? How did one little tool on one social media site tap into something so fundamental to human psychology? To find out, I got in touch with Leah Pearlman, a current comic book artist and former Facebook employee from Denver who is credited with the button's inception.
I initially wanted to ask her about the specifics of its development, but naturally we started talking about the broader issue of craving validation. Interestingly, Leah says she found herself hooked on likes just like everyone else—but to the point where she started to worry.
VICE: Hey Leah, let's start with how you got to Facebook.
Leah Pearlman: Well I was always a math-science kid. I loved problem solving and I loved getting the answers right. I think it was also really because I was a girl in math, and that also felt cool. So I studied hard at maths and left Brown University with a degree in computer science. I first got a job at Microsoft and worked there for two years but I just didn't find it inspiring. I had some friends going over to Facebook and I was really impressed with their product. I thought their site had a special user design and there was some magic in it, so I went for an interview. I was 23, and it was just like 100 other 23-year-olds working together in the same office, and they were all super smart and fun. This was during 2006 and it just had magic to it. I could tell straight away.
Did Mark Zuckerberg have magic?
He didn't interview me, but I'd say he's one of my favourite people on the planet. One of his genius qualities is that he's actually not a perfectionist. He'd say, "Yeah we're going to offend some people, it's not going work in some areas, but we're going do it anyway." One of our company's mottos was move fast, break things, and he was always like that. I would say he's a role model and that has grown from the beginning of the time when I met him—when he was young and I was young.
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So how did the like button come about? What problem were you trying to solve?
I was trying to solve what we called the redundant problem. So for example, if you write "We're getting married!" all the comments used to say "Congratulations" over and over again. I found that really aesthetically ugly, plus, every time someone did say something heartfelt, the post was hard to find among all the other redundant ones. So I wanted to solve both problems at once.
Do you remember the exact lightbulb moment for the like button?
No, it was an evolution. The beginning of the idea was something called the bomb button, which was similar but slightly different thing my friend came up with. He posted it on our ideas board but for some reason it didn't attract attention. So then I did a slightly different version and called it the awesome button. And for some reason it got attention from the team and we all worked on it together. It was a co-creation.
Was it hard to get the design right?
Yes! It was really hard. The thing was that different symbols would be inappropriate in different countries. Different words didn't work—"awesome" felt too young, "love" felt too cheesy. Designers would get frustrated and leave the project and we'd have to get a new team. In the end we had the design, and Mark was finally like, "It's going to be like with a thumbs up, just build it and ship it, we're done with this." So he finally made the decision.
Do you remember the point it took off?
It was successful immediately. I remember that really satisfying sense of "I knew it!" The stats went up so fast—all the stats we thought would be affected, but 50 comments became 150 likes, almost immediately. Those people would start making more status updates, so there was way more content and it all just worked.
That was in 2009. How do you feel about the like button eight years later?
At first I felt like this thing we'd built was amazing. But then about two years ago I noticed the newsfeed algorithms changed so certain content wouldn't get as much distribution. And at that time I'd started drawing these comics. The comics were my way of drawing and sharing my internal world, and I was putting them on Facebook getting more and more fans and I loved it. But when Facebook changed their algorithm my likes dropped off and it felt like I wasn't getting enough oxygen. It was like, wait a minute, I poured my heart and soul into this drawing but it's only had 20 likes. So even if I could blame it on the algorithm, something inside me was like they don't like me, I'm not good enough. I need to start buying ads!
You started buying ads?
Yeah, suddenly I was buying ads, just to get that attention back. Although I feel embarrassed admitting that. I don't think I've ever admitted that before.
It's fine, my life is governed by likes too. But what I find interesting is that you're just as motivated by likes, even though you created the system. Do you feel responsible for what you've done to the internet?
I feel like I should feel responsible, but I don't. I look back and I think it was the right thing to do at that time and there was no way around it. My housemate is building artificial intelligence and he gets a lot of people telling him to stop, but we literally can't. Someone is going to build it. There was no way to not do that, so I don't feel responsible.
Do you think you need social validation more than others?
Yeah I do. It's a blessing because sometimes if I'm going to get public validation—like in a TED Talk—I'll really try to do a good job and it fuels my integrity. But the curse is that if I'm not getting attention, I can freak out and feel like I'm not enough.
A lot of people are reluctant to admit that. Why do you think that is?
Well from my experience, if you notice I'm trying to get your attention, then you won't give it. It ruins the game. Also there's some admission of a lack of self-confidence— please validate me because I'm whiny and weak—and that just goes against the exact image I'm trying to project.
So why are you happy to admit you crave public validation?
Because although I don't feel responsible for creating [the like button], I feel I have a responsibility to talk about validation. As a person who needs validation, and as the person who focused this need in others, I should talk about authenticity.
So you do agree that you changed how the internet operates, even if you don't feel responsible?
Well, do you know that episode of Black Mirror, that one where everyone is obsessed with likes? When I saw that I suddenly felt terrified of becoming those people, as well as thinking I'd created that environment for everyone else.
How are you trying to avoid becoming like that?
So there are a bunch of things that I find uncomfortable, such as certain thoughts or judgements. And my response is to check my phone to avoid that discomfort. I'd started building this entire life around avoiding discomfort instead of just focusing on things that give me joy. And I'm trying to change that. Right now I'm focused on joy and having clarity about what brings me joy. Activities like just looking at an ocean. I just want to jump in and that's joy, that's easy love. And on the other side, when I notice something feels uncomfortable, I just pay attention to it. I journal it, interview it.
So I said to you before that my life is governed by likes. A lot of that is my job as a writer, but a lot of that is just me and my dumb need for social validation. How would you recommend I stop caring?
Well if you're genuinely worried about how many like you're getting, then you're not actually worried about being worried about how many likes you're getting. You just really want a lot of likes. And if that's the case, I say go for it. Let yourself want to be liked. Give yourself full permission to do that. And if there's self-consciousness there, just notice that too. Allow yourself to feel that and observe how it feels. I won't tell you to stop in any way, because from my experience that doesn't work. I would say the last thing we need is more self-judgement for anything. I think that's one of the things that created this epidemic to begin with. It's like we judge ourselves and then we need someone else to validate us. So yeah, it's okay. You're allowed to want to be liked.
That's really interesting. Do you think there's an answer there for the internet just in general? Is there a way to put the brakes on this validation-powered hyperspace we're living in?
To me, it's like that Einstein quote: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." And there's an even a better quote by Buckminster Fuller: "If you want to change the system, just build a better one and the old one will fall away."
So my suspicion is that something more interesting will eventually come along and that type of internet will shift, hopefully. The experience of external validation compared to true inner validation doesn't even compare. I mean being really deeply personally satisfied with myself when I do something I'm incredibly proud of—that's nothing a Facebook like can compete with.