Twitter’s “favorite” button, the service’s primary way for users to signal agreement, acknowledgement, laughter, support, and occasionally (and perversely!) utter hatred, is officially dead. The company said today that it is replacing favorites with “likes,” to be represented in its apps and on the web by red heart icons. The changes, which also apply to Twitter-owned Vine, represent the company’s latest effort to simplify the user experience as it looks to attract new users. “We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers,” product manager Akarshan Kumar said in a blog post. “You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.”
Favorites were born in 2006, around the dawn of Twitter. As best as I can tell, they pre-date both Tumblr’s red hearts, which arrived toward the end of 2008, and Facebook’s “like” button, which was introduced in 2009. Favorites were initially designed as a way of bookmarking tweets — a feature that feels fairly insane for a service whose messages are limited to 140 characters and (at the time) could not include photos or videos. But from the start, third-party developers sought to make the feature more useful. A service called Favrd sprung up to highlight popular tweets in real time based on the number of favorites, and it quickly became popular among the newly minted profession of Twitter humorists. (Favrd closed in 2009 after the emergence of Favstar, a more robust competitor that endures to this day.)
A VERSATILE BUTTON THAT WAS OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD
In other words, favs, as they came to be abbreviated, were one more instance of Twitter’s community understanding the power of the service more completely than the people who were building it. They added hashtags to organize content around keywords; retweets to spread content virally; and through brute force converted a near-useless bookmarking feature into a powerful multi-purpose tool. I’ve favorited more than 60,000 tweets over the years, and in that time I’ve come to appreciate how versatile that little button is. I use it as a kind of read receipt to acknowledge replies; I use it whenever a tweet makes me laugh out loud; I use it when someone criticizes me by name in the hopes that seeing it’s one of my “favorite” tweets will confuse and upset them. It often works!
Today, a star is unborn. After testing hearts this summer, Twitter is now rolling them out across the user base. I’m told tests showed that people who had hearts enabled on their accounts used them more often, and I believe it: likes and hearts have become a kind of universal currency of the social web, from Facebook to Tumblr to Instagram. And there’s probably some benefit to Twitter in having a standard icon of approval across its suite of apps — Vine previously used a smiley face, and Periscope debuted with hearts. Now they’ll all be the same, and perhaps a bit more comprehensible to all the new people Twitter hopes to lure in with Moments and other products.
AN ADMISSION OF DEFEAT
All that said, it’s hard not to feel defeated by the sudden death of Twitter’s star. For all its faults, the favorite was unique to Twitter, and part of what makes the service distinctive. Most people may never have understood the multivalent power of the fav, but those who did found it surprisingly elegant and powerful. In this, the fav was a microcosm of Twitter itself: a bit of work up front, in exchange for a social experience as rich and surprising as anything in the world.
That version of Twitter attracted many of its most loyal and influential users, but it hasn’t been of much use to advertisers, and Wall Street has punished the company’s stock accordingly. Returning CEO Jack Dorsey has promised a series of “bold moves” to reignite user growth — the company added just 4 million net active users last quarter — and dumbing down the fav lies somewhere on that roadmap.
A star is not a heart. A favorite is not a like. The newest mode of engagement on Twitter is a bit less versatile, a bit less powerful, a bit more compressed. Like Moments, its big bet on casual users, Twitter’s likes are basic, in all senses of the word. I’m sure we’ll get used to them in time. I’m less sure I’ll ever really come to like them.