May 31, 2012 at 7:56 AM ET
Enjoying isn't something you do, it's just something that happens. You don't decide whether or not you like a food, or whether or not you like that food more than all other foods. "Picking favorites," as people like to say, isn't about picking at all; it's about finding a way to say something you already feel.
Facebook's goal, it seems, is to conflate these two things: In its last major iteration, "liking" became "sharing." (In the newest micro-iteration, "doing" is sharing, too.) "Liking" on Facebook is a public articulation of support first and foremost. It's useful for telling people things; it's less useful for keeping track of things that you actually enjoy.
That's what favorites are for. Or, at least, that's what they were for.
'Favorite' as a mutant verb
"Favorite" was never meant to be a verb, but then again, so many words weren't. For a few hundred years it would sporadically surface, either in poetry or literature, as a purple-hued version of "favor," or in straight accounts of sports (especially horse racing). But by and large, the arbiters of language were able to beat back "favorite" as a mutant verb.
Then computers happened. Early digital reuses of the word left it a noun, but not undamaged. Microsoft and AOL asked their users to create lists of "favorites," which didn't sound especially unusual but was a perversion nonetheless: to declare something a "favorite," strictly speaking, is to declare it preferable to all other things, or at least to all other similar things. If you want to be a jerk about it, you might say that a "favorites" list in a Web browser should be one item long.
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Browsers dropped "favorites" in favor of "bookmarks," which might be yet another thing Marc Andreessen deserves credit for — he helped create the first truly mainstream Web browser, which never wavered in its devotion to "bookmarks" over "favorites." Since then, all the companies that matter — Mozilla, Microsoft, Google and Opera — have stuck with it too.
But by the time browsers gave up on favorites, it was too late: "favorite" had become a thing you could do as well as a thing you could have. Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor of the Vocabula Review, laments what happened next in his "Dictionary of Unendurable English":
And so began the era of the favorite.
'Favoriting' is no longer a private affair
Modern favoriting is descended from Internet bookmark favoriting, and it serves a similar core function. Favoriting on YouTube or Flickr or Twitter is like keeping a site-specific bookmarks list.
The crucial difference is that unlike bookmarking, favoriting happens in public. This has a subtly transformative effect on what it means to favorite something: If bookmarking is like keeping a scrapbook or a diary, favoriting is like leaving it out on the coffee table for everyone to read.
Maybe it's that implied sense of privacy that has made social favoriting so versatile and strange. Favoriting on Twitter is a culture unto itself, a context-bound way to say anything from "I endorse this" to "I want to read this later" to "I saw this" to "Ha!" Twitter favoriting started, as I remember it, as a way to keep track of tweets I loved, just for me. Now it's evolved into complex one-word language I speak fluently with people I know, people I wish I knew and people I've never met. It's also a source of joy: Getting faved is just the best; better than retweeting under the right conditions, and more intimate. On Twitter, I troll for favs.
Seeing other peoples' favorites, as you can in Twitter's new Discovery tab, feels like overhearing the real conversation. And still, clicking the star instead of the retweet icon feels satisfyingly furtive.
Sites such as Favstar have built a business around tracking and rebroadcasting Twitter favorites, but Jason Kottke's favorite-aggregating site, Stellar, is the first site to treat them as a cohesive, separate conversation. (Note: it's still private.) A Stellar feed is a mixture of friends' favorites from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Vimeo.
Stellar treats all favorites equally, which makes it easy to see how they're different. "[Favoriting can be] bookmarking for later, archiving (which is slightly different than bookmarking, it's longer-term storage), expressing appreciation, social grooming, curatorial (that word again!), and increasingly for sharing with others," says Kottke. He's noticed two divergent schools of favoriting, one more deeply social than the other:
A Twitter fave is a chuckle or slight nod, an "I heard you" or "atta girl." Vimeo faves are almost all cool stuff and not friend stuff. YouTube faving is even more extreme ... it's almost all viral videos.
Flickr's favoriting activity reflects a bit of both, and makes for an interesting extra data point in the site's slow death. "Flickr faves are also pretty social," Kottke says, "but its use among Stellar users has declined sharply over the past year, so it's gotten less social ... people tend to fave cool stuff rather than friend stuff."
The resulting mixture, in any case, is fantastic: I don't even use Stellar properly — rather than follow people, I just look at a centrally curated main feed — and I feel the need to visit it every day. It's my most reliable source of nice content on the Internet right now, and it's sourced entirely from interactions that most people regard as at least semi-private. It's also, I think, where the action is.
Your favorites are no longer about you
Facebook recently started testing a minor redesign to the Timeline interface. It's mostly about killing boxes, and getting rid of a little bit of weight at the top of the page. It feels cleaner, but not terribly different. I don't expect much backlash should they decide to see it through:
The biggest change here is in nomenclature: The "Likes" list has been renamed "Favorites."
"Liking" on Facebook has always aggregated itself, and you don't feel the least bit sneaky when you catch your friends doing it. It's a central part of the system. I can't help but think, though, that liking — an explicitly public action — has always been repressed by its visibility. Unlike Twitter's winking "atta girl" favorites, Facebook likes imply spreading the word and advertising. To like is to rebroadcast, which changes — maybe taints? — the things you like.
But maybe I'm not being fair. Stellar is an experiment in favoriting as sharing, and yet I love Stellar. Facebook "Liking" is what happens when you take favoriting as sharing to its logical endpoint — a place where favorites are for everyone but you — and I don't feel comfortable with it. Favoriting isn't liking. But favoriting isn't exactly favoriting anymore, either.
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