How Adam Smith predicted the success of Facebook, Instagram, and the ‘likes’

I may not be the first one to connect Adam Smith to social media so this is just a short point on how one of the key ideas of the Theory of Moral Sentiments has been a driving force behind the success of social media. Chapter II of Part 3 of the Theory of Moral Sentiments (titled: “Of the love of Praise, and of that of Praise-worthiness; and of the dread of Blame, and of that of Blame-worthiness”) starts with the often-cited line: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.

This desire has been underpinning the success of social media such as Facebook or Instagram, where, as a rule of thumb, the more likes people get, the more loved they will feel. There is a legion of cognitive studies looking at the psychology of Facebook ‘likes’. The point that these studies may be missing is that not all likes are equally gratifying. Adam Smith gives some more insight into this:

But this desire of the approbation, and this aversion to the disapprobation of his brethren, would not alone have rendered him fit for that society for which he was made. Nature, accordingly, has endowed him, not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men.”

That is, people strive to be ‘liked’ on Facebook but gratification is only taken from being liked for posting things that the poster thinks are valuable human attributes (be that humour, bravery, sporting skills, or any other quality).

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