Professionalism/Justin Rosenstein and the Like Button



Justin Rosenstein is a 34 year old Silicon Valley tech executive, who in 2016 made headlines for his decision to limit his use of social media by blocking Reddit from his computer, uninstalling Facebook and Snapchat, and going as far as asking his assistant to set up a feature on his mobile device that would prevent him from reinstalling any social media applications. He is particularly aware of the allure of Facebook Likes, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.” [1] Rosenstein’s concern over the addictive aspect of being validated on social media by tools such as the “Like Button” is quite interesting, as he is most credited for being the original creator of the Facebook Like Button in 2007.

Justin Rosenstein Personal LifeEdit

Rosenstein worked as an engineer at Google after dropping out of his graduate program in Computer Science at Stanford. At Google, he helped develop Gmail as well as a number of other Google technologies including Google Drive and Google Docs [2]. In 2007, he joined Facebook as a Software Engineer where he developed the Like Button. Currently, he leads the San Francisco based company Asana, which focuses on building software that help improve office productivity.

The Awesome ButtonEdit

The original concept idea was first developed by Leah Pearlman, an early product manager at Facebook. Shortly after arriving at Facebook in 2007, Pearlman noticed that Newsfeed was being cluttered by useless comments that expressed some variant of the phrase “I Like This” [3]. Pearlman and a coworker developed the button idea and posted the concept on an internal message board within Facebook. Rosenstein, then a newly hired engineer at Facebook, noticed the idea and immediately took it up as one of his own coding projects [3]. In one night, Rosenstein coded the UI and front-end script for the button in what he described as a “hackathon sort of night.” At that point, the button would be known as the “Awesome Button.” [3].

Even though the awesome button was technically complete in 2007, it was not released to the public until 2007. For a couple years, the Awesome Button became known as the “cursed project” since the project could not earn the approval of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who feared that the button would overshadow some of Facebook’s other features such commenting or sharing. Eventually, developers argued that “Liked” posts could be used to organize Facebook’s NewsFeed, with popular posts appearing at the top and therefore actually encouraging people to share and comment on posts [3]. After officially changing the button’s name to the “Like Button,” Zuckerburg approved the project and it was made available to the public.

In February 2009, the button was launched with an initial blog post from Pearlman, who wrote: Your friends, and their photos, notes, statuses and more are what make Facebook great," she wrote. "When your friends share something great, let them know you like it” [3]. As Pearlman had initially wanted, the Like Button reduced the need for users to add useless comments indicating that they liked a post. For users, over time, the habit of liking something became instinctual. The buttons growth was simply a result of both design decisions and human cravings to be liked [3]. The Like button also helped Facebook increase revenue from advertising since it became an important part of the algorithm that organizes the Newsfeed.

Psychological EffectsEdit

Addicted to LikesEdit

Engagement in Facebook and many other social media platforms soared as people enjoyed the short term boosts they received from social affirmation. Following the introduction and success of the Facebook Like button, other companies immediately began to follow suit. Companies like Youtube moved to a binary “Like/”Dislike” system, Reddit added an “Upvote/Downvote” system, and Twitter released the “heart-shaped” favorite button. Liking became an important part of Facebook’s notification system, which is a key factor in bringing people back to the site multiple times throughout the day [2] . Companies found that they could make tremendous profit by coming up with ways to “gamify” the human desire for social interaction. Snapchat, for instance, uses Snapstreaks, a system where users are encouraged and rewarded for sending their friends direct snaps for as many consecutive days as possible. This model of providing incentives to users to keep their platforms as engaging as possible has since become the norm Software Engineering companies. Social media companies like Facebook realized they could harvest valuable data on the preferences of their users, driving up profit by offering advertisements based on that data.

Over the next few years, Rosenstein and Pearlman began to grow disaffected with Facebook “Likes” and other types of feedback loops [3]. Rosenstein later claimed that a surge in social media addiction was not the original intent of the Like Button. His initial excitement for taking up the project was because he wanted to create a “positive” feature that would create a more friendly and encouraging environment Facebook. As Rosenstein put it, “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions for them to have unintended, negative consequences. [4]” Even Pearlman began to see the addictive nature of her invention, and eventually hired a manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she could avoid using the site as much as possible.

Attention EconomyEdit

Most modern social media platforms are free for users and rely on companies buying advertising space for revenue. The more users a platform has, the more valuable its advertising space becomes. The longer a user is on the platform, the more advertisements and promotions they will see.  Thus, it’s in a social media company’s best interest to keep users on their app as long as possible, as attention is not an infinite resource[5].

Psychologically, the Facebook Like button acts like a little reward much like operant conditioning. For many, "liking" a post is a form of validation for the poster, and the process of checking on a post to see if it received more likes reinforces the desire for that validation[6]. Each time a user checks, that is more time spent in Facebook where they may view advertisements. Though the Like Button's psychological effects were not supposedly unintended at the beginning, the end results are still desirable and similar practices show up in many other features of Facebook and other social media platforms.

More Examples of Addictive DesignEdit

Facebook's Messenger app includes a feature where a user can see if their message has been seen by the recipient. Much like in-person conversations, this elicits feelings of reciprocity. Basic SMS text messages have no such feature and longer periods of non-response are able to be excused even if the recipient did read the message and decide not to respond to it at that time. The "Message Read" feature increases the frequency of digital communication between users and generates a constant, involved conversation that. Messenger also includes a feature where the user can see if the recipient is typing a response, indicating they are about to send a message and further building on the idea of being involved in an actual conversation[6] which all ends up adding to time spent in-app.

Push notifications are digital notifications that alert users that an update has occurred in their app. This widespread feature pulls user attention from whatever activity they are involved with and artificially increases the frequency at which a user would naturally check their phone. Even the loading of the updates has been designed to take a few seconds, creating anticipation. Much like slot machines, the opening of the app and waiting for the page to refresh resembles the pulling of a slot machine lever and waiting for the numbers to slow and align. In both cases, the user manually checks to see if they win or not and the slight delay to actually find out if you "won" or got any interesting updates generates anticipation and investment into the result. Users spend more time in the app and artificially check more often. Tristan Harris[7], a former Google employee now dedicated to promoting ethics in the tech industry, states that "our minds can be hijacked" in reference to the gambling-like addiction many users experience.

Time SpentEdit

A study conducted by dscout found from a sample size of over 100,000 Android users that the average smartphone user interacts (defined as any single physical interaction i.e. individual taps and swipes) with their device 2,617 times a day, equivalent to 145 minutes[8]. The average heavy smartphone user doubled those numbers. Facebook was responsible for 15% of the total time spent daily and social media and messaging combined are responsible for 48% of time spent using a smartphone. The study noted that their research methods only were able to track time spent on the lock screen, but not the total number of physical interactions. 47% of sessions were on the lock screen, which is mainly used to check the time and see if a user received app notifications.

Follow-ups with participants revealed that despite that 68% were surprised by the results of the study, very few stated a strong desire to change their behavior.

Social ImplicationsEdit

Likes greatly impact what content users see on their Facebook news feed, and have large scale social implications as a result. How you react to a friend's content determines how prevalent it is in your newsfeed, creating a systems where "the most trivial of decisions could end up shaping your cozy little filter bubble" [9]. Consequently, this results in a system where users only see content which they agree with, creating a filter bubble which cannot be repaired easily because "remedies for the spread of so-called fake news, like fact-checking and blacklisting offenders, won't come close to fixing the problem" [10]. There are also concerns regarding how Facebook reinforces a crowd pleaser mentality where differing opinions are stifled due to users becoming "overly interested in and dependent upon the opinions and behavior of their Facebook friends" [11].

Information obtained from likes is also used to run targeted campaigns on users; Facebook can make informed decisions as to which ads will be effective on certain users because it "collects data from what you input on Facebook" in addition to tracking which other sites you visit while logged into Facebook [12]. Facebook has also been accused of using this info to run propaganda and "fake news" campaigns on its users, most notably in connection to the 2016 presidential election. These campaigns are "remarkably cheap to push" because they "generate unusually high user engagement" due to their sensationalist nature [13]. Feedback mechanisms such as the like button make it incredibly easy for this fake info to spread on Facebook.


Justin Rosenstein claims that his original intentions for the like button were harmless. Despite this, it has been widely used to serve many questionable purposes throughout Facebook. No matter what the original purpose of a product is, professionals have an obligation to consider the lasting impact of their work; the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' code of ethics states that software developers should "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public" and "strive to comply with ethical design" [14]. These values require that an individual consider all possible applications of their work, including potential abuses. By doing so, a professional ensures that their work isn't misused to go against their ethical beliefs - a concern which they should always hold.


  1. Embury-Dennis, T. (2017, October 6). Man who Invented Like Button Deletes Facebook App Over Addiction Fears.
  2. a b Lewis, P. (n.d.). Our minds can be hijacked': The tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.
  3. a b c d e f g Luckerson, V. (2017, February 15). The Rise of the Like Economy.
  4. Inventor of Facebook Like button disowns apps. (2017, October 09).
  5. The Supply and Demand of Attention (2017, March 20).
  6. a b Your Addiction to Social Media Is No Accident (2017, May 19).
  7. 'Our minds can be hijacked': the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (2017, Oct 6).
  8. Putting a Finger on Our Phone Obsession (2016, June 16).
  9. Shah, S. (2017, February 27). Facebook is changing the way it ranks posts based on your reactions and likes.
  10. Ruiz, R. (2017, March 6). Here’s how you create echo chambers on Facebook.
  11. Eranti, V., & Lonkila, M. (2015). The Social Significance of the Facebook Like Button. First Monday, 20(6), 1st ser.
  12. Castillo, M. (2018, March 19). Here's how Facebook ad tracking and targeting works.
  13. Kim, L. (2017, October 11). Facebook Ads, Fake News and the Shockingly Low Cost of Influencing an Election [DATA].
  14. IEEE Code of Ethics.