Hearts, Likes, and Active Listening

I have a question about our social signaling on this site by use of the :heart: icon and the word “like,” which is the default for Discourse, our forum software…but could be customized. I’m talking about this user interface element:


It combines the Facebook-popularized “like” signifier with the perennial “heart” symbol (which means many things)—but the question is, do these memes mean what we want them to mean?

I’ve been thinking about the act of “liking” a post. I am a prolific liker, and I like almost ALL the posts here. What’s not to like? :face_with_monocle: I certainly love posts too (or rather the people participating)…but it’s a kind of meta-love that doesn’t need to be explicitly expressed (i.e., requiring a click, which easily becomes an automatic behavior) every time I read a brilliant new post.

Of course, I am grateful for everyone’s contributions, which make this forum come alive. And I would like to express gratitude; but again, this doesn’t need to be with every post. I would prefer a meta-gratitude to permeate all my interactions, because I really do feel joyous for the presence, care, and attention that everyone here is showing. It is a dream come true, literally.

What I realize, however, is that when I tap the “heart/like” button—when I psychoneurophysically perform that micro-gesture with a quantum of action concretizing in a click—what I really mean to say is simply that I’m paying attention—that I’ve read the post, given it a moment, taken it in…though I may or may not have an immediate reply, I’m listening.

It’s a simple function of conversation, which we take for granted (or used to, anyway) in face-to-face encounters, where we can feel, by many subtle signals—i.e., body language—when the other person is really there.

In this forum, however, if we don’t have something to say, or can’t afford, in the moment, to type it, then the heart/like can function as nod, or yes, mmm, or “roger,” or eye (I) contact. We can make our presence felt through the affordances of the interface. A “like” functions as a kind of subtle, pre-linguistic signal that communicates rapport; but for me, anyway, the “liking” part is misnomer, or beside the point.

I do appreciate the heart icon, because listening is closely connected to a heartbeat, and with a :heart: I can say “yes,” “thank you,” “nice thought,” “I agree,” “d’accord”… it doesn’t even have to be English.

And does it matter if our hearts or likes are cumulative? Are we saving up points for some mystical prize on the far side of the Singularity? In the future, I envision incorporating a cryptocurrency that allows us to gift virtual coins—aka “LitCoin”—in a decentralized manner, but I would see this as a layer around a more central communicative kernel: a “listening society,” from the inside out.

What if we got rid of the “like” and the quantity of likes and let the heart icon speak for itself? Maybe we could have different color hearts. Or different emojis—much like Facebook, with its “reactions,” but NOT the reverse-engineered dopamine candy that grows cloying; rather, a way of signaling quality or intensity, providing a minimum quantum of valuable information for the interlocuters.

What would be a useful set of signals to substitute, as digital prostheses, for our ‘body language’…in this disembodied, predominantly symbolic space?


Immediate thoughts went to Medium’s recent clapping. You can clap as many times as you like by holding it down. Do not know what it means, for it seems easily corruptible, hiring a clapping assistant that claps for your own stuff.
I personally have never used the heart/like thing until this website. It seems less superficial based on the intention of the community. When I like something here it is to say “you are on to something here” and " this is something others will appreciate" …it is not a dead end.
When I see other people’s likes, I discover their personality, especially as set up on this site. I can follow a like directly to the individual then see which posts are closest to their hearts. As a newbie, this was literally the first time I utilized the like system because it finally made sense. If you /we were to remove this system, then we would be taking away a method for quasi-indirect communication. If it isn’t broke…

…if it is a common complaint that needs fixin’, I would recommend retaining the connection to profiles. Maybe instead of the heart, allow for phrases…“thought provoking post Marco!”


I appreciate Marco’s expressed thoughts on this matter; it is something I have pondered myself. At this point, there does not appear to be anything that he or Ed or John or Geoffrey can say that will not inform, constructively and positively challenge, and/or resonate strongly with me. I interact less (for now) with Caroline, Wendy, Nate, Douglas, Michael, etc., but I can’t imagine the pattern will be any different. A heart is most often simple acknowledgment that this place and the people who frequent it make having an internet connection worthwhile.

That said, Douglas (whose expressed thoughts on this matter I also appreciate) brings up what I think is a pretty important point: what café regulars who can take each other’s attentive reading and writing for granted might come to see as superfluous, the new kids in town might see as affirming encouragement to stick around.

To go really crazy in an ideal world there are symbols for

  • strongly agree
  • thank you for saying what I was thinking
  • well-written
  • great point, to which I might add…

and the like, so our “like” could be, like, itself part of the conversation…
Or something like that. :grinning:
But that’s no mean technical feat, I’m sure, which may lean toward the “If it isn’t broke…” side of things.

(I purposefully will not use any heart symbols in this thread as an experiment. It’s going to be tough.) LOL

Edit, after more insightful comments: Really, really tough…


I’m pretty much in tune with what the others are saying here. We all like to use the hearts, even when we sometimes may mean slightly different things when we do so, as @patanswer cogently noted. In that sense, a feature that allows to express a certain intensity of a like might be worth thinking about, and I say that knowing full well that there are multiple dimensions informing that intensity which would not be reflected. But, that’s just one of the drawbacks of a digital environment as opposed to a face-to-face one. I mean, there is a difference between squinting-eyes-furrowed-browed and lit-up-eyes-jaw-dropped nodding, isn’t there?


I wonder about this a lot. But is what we are doing really disembodied? When I say that ‘I sense’-what is happening in reader/ self, speaker/listener?

I am often experiencing and inviting an overlapping of the basic five senses supplemented by the possible extra-physical senses. That means that we have access to at lease ten senses plus or minus the many other senses that language users can employ. It’s fractal like, topological.

It is how we use the language, and we may trigger something psychoactive. Metaphor, analogy, tone, gesture, all of that moves the mind in hard to define ways that is not disembodied at all. I sense in many of our threads a quality that no artificial intelligence is going to capture.

Helen Keller in her prose often used similes and metaphors drawn from the visual system. Some biind people can actually see in a different way. They see by touch. They can walk in the woods and feel the presence or the absence of something that the sighted dont notice.

She once asked a man what was the color of his wife’s eyes. He said he didn’t remember. This made her furious. I would not want to piss off Helen Keller!


I appreciate this question. “Liking” is one of those things that has always seemed weird, but I mostly got use to. I love the idea of the like button being the screen equivalent to nodding in recognition. That makes me like liking better.

I’m seeing a different kinds of discomfort with the specific term “like” and symbol :heart: in your discussion that might lead to different solutions.

One is the mismatch between the many shades of reaction and the usual, specific meaning of “liking” something. This often gives me pause. What happens when I don’t like a post the way I like chocolate, but find it interesting or challenging or problematic in an interesting way? That’s further complicated by the public declaration of liking-- what if people take one of these complexly shaded likes as a simple “agree”? One the one hand, maybe folks are familiar enough with these platforms that everyone knows that web-like isn’t the same as talking-like. But I also wonder if there could be a subtle way that the mismatch encourages filter bubbles and ignoring or not engaging with things that aren’t a straightforward like.

This also brings to mind a t-shirt I vaguely remember circulating in Chicago. It looked generally like the “I :heart: NY” shirt, but was something like “I :large_blue_circle: Chicago.” I remember feeling like the blue circle summed up my feeling about the city, some how. I definitely had a feeling about the city, but it wasn’t exactly a heart.

I like the idea of either a bigger selection of reactions, or maybe just a more ambiguous value-neutral symbol and term.

Another aspect seems to be the currency-like, popularity-contest aspect of likes. That way it can turn conversation into nearly literal market place of ideas, or on the mainstream sites, more of a market place of “content.” Maybe it’s that validation can shade into valuation which can then slip into competition (or at least non-cooperation). Some sites definitely take that as a positive good (Reddit), but I always find it disheartening. I also wonder if there’s something from Facebook’s origin as a “hot-or-not” rating system that has seeped into the underlying logic of “liking.”

Maybe honest conversation and real involvement inherently overcome this limitation. I’m not sure if the running tally of likes on a post hurt or help.

I don’t have a specific vote, but I do love that this is a point of discussion. A reminder for me that this is the place to be and a call to hang out here more!


This seems to be accurate in my experience. If a threshold is reached, I may find myself inclined to press a button. If another threshold is reached a written response is initiated. If I want to enter a conversation on a conference call then speech and gestures are given and received in a different kind of interplay where taking turns talking is negotiated mostly by the non-verbals.

When I have met people in person that I was introduced to on line I often find that we are already in rapport.

Learning how to do rapport is hard when the distractions are many. We have perhaps learned from FB burn out how fragile these social networks are.


This is excellent feedback from everyone. Thank you!

I agree: it ain’t broke. The heart/like does communicate something positive, if not nuanced or complex. It’s part of a liminal semiotic zone, below the threshold of a textual response, but above purely reading and sensing. It’s a feedback mechanism.

It is like an Arthur Young ‘pseudopod’ of the mind—a way of psychically touching, and thus making a presence felt.

When I see that a post has been “hearted,” I feel something. When I :heart: something, I mean to convey a feeling, a simple affirmation perhaps. It’s simplicity is probably a virtue. But it would certainly add an interesting dimensionality to have a wider palette of ‘touch’ responses—TJ’s list is a great start! Also, the idea of “intensity” somehow being conveyed (e.g., I’ve thought that the color of the heart could intensify as a post gets more interaction, but the number of likes would not be prominent).

I’m not sure anything needs to be done at this moment…but I will keep thinking about these interface elements. The tension I feel definitely relates to David’s point about “honest conversation and real involvement.” What if the interface was explicitly and purposefully geared toward this desired outcome? I think in many ways it already is.

But I had thought that maybe the “like” factor (which is colored for me by my Facebook experience, though this is obviously not the case for everyone) might be subtly off-key. But maybe I’m wrong about that, and it can actually be a familiar and friendly way to express a quantum of affirmation, especially for new-comers.

I will keep liking what I like, and keep the inquiry open! Thanks again for your thoughts.


…So tough to refrain from positive acknowledgment, in fact, that I have to “cheat”. :

Marco (1): "Thank you for saying what I was thinking"
Douglas: "Great point, to which I might add"
Ed: "Well put. LOL on that last question! Maybe ‘response’ emojis…?"
John (1): "Deep and perceptive, as usual"
Dave: "Comprehensive take. (Haven’t ‘seen’ you in a while - Please do ‘hang out here more’!)"
John (2): "Strongly agree"
Marco (2): “You are very welcome”

I gladly declare my ‘experiment’ a failure and return to showering hearts with heartfelt abandon.


I recall reading a study on stable couples. They have more strongly agree statements in their dialogues, than the couples who do not. You can disagree in a stable couple but just be sure you emphasize what you agree upon. Civil discourse, which is almost absent in most places, needs our support, unless, of course, you enjoy having a cat fight, dishes thrown, etc. I am a little too old for that.

A wise old Jewish lady once told me," Never tell a man you dont like him. Just say you left something on the stove."


I want to know what Nate’s ideas are about this thread. @natesavery

I also am interested in Medium’s clapping function, along with @Douggins. “One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?
By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.” it says at the bottom of a Medium article.

The fact that you can hit the button multiple times is intriguing and seems to imply going beyond a “like” to indicate “volume” of resonance–you clap to indicate how worthy you feel a piece is of attention. I wonder what the utility of this functionality is within Medium (and what functions it could have within Cosmos)… I imagine Medium measures the pages’ rate of claps and invests more promotional or advertising resources into the trending – or, the highly lauded via Clapping – articles.



My only reservation with that is that we might get a false positive. Sometimes a post re-enters the thread in an odd way that may not yield an immediate response from anyone but that later becomes relevant. I doubt than any one post tips us in a direction, but probably a cluster of posts, happening over a long thread, creates a sense of rising action, climax, denouement, just like in a well made play. We sense this momentum easily in face to face encounters but it is easy to derail in on line communications as some person’s wit or irony is not immediately appreciated. It is a fuzzy logic most of the time and that comfort with ambiguity is hard to register. Groups that are grounded and have enough familiarity with each other are more prone to take risks I think. We should cultivate the risk taking rather than the popularity contest aspect.


I like the Likes :smile:. If I want to say something more substantive or focussed, then I reply directly to the post, using “quote” to focus in on what I want to respond to. One thing that I do like on another site, though, is the “hold heart down” button on Periscope (streaming video feed), which sends a stream of hearts (of different colors, based on each person’s assigned color) to the video. I quite like that, but it goes with a particular format, live video streaming from one person. So it doesn’t seem to apply here.


An update: it appears that the Discourse team is tweaking this feature and simplifying the UI, which I…like.

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