It was only a year ago that Facebook introduces its "Like" program -- a "Like" button Web site publishers could add to their sites. A "Like" button sounds harmless enough, but for Facebook its a Golden Goose that has just begun laying eggs.
When you click "Like" on a Web page you're visiting, the number of "Likes" on the count for that page (but not the whole site) increases by one. More important, Facebook auto-posts that item on your Facebook Wall, under the label "(YOUR NAME) likes a link."
Your Facebook friends can see the item on your Wall, and can themselves "Like" it on Facebook or, after clicking on the link, "Like" it on the page just like you did. All this liking enables the page to spread virally via Facebook.
Danny Sullivan, the influential editor-in-chief of a site called Search Engine Land, estimates that there are about 2.5 million sites now sporting "Like" buttons. And the number is growing fast -- Facebook says more than 10,000 "Like" buttons are added on the Internet every day.
A new study published this week by CityGrid Media and conducted by Harris Interactive concluded that the Facebook "Like" button has surpassed the writing of a review for how consumers prefer to show support for local businesses.
While only 13 percent of users ever write reviews, some 20 percent use "Like." That soars to 40 percent of people under 35 and nearly 50 percent in the ages between 18 and 24.
Facebook also offers "Like Pages" -- commonly called fan pages, for people to promote themselves or their brands. "Like Pages" are similar to Facebook profiles, but can support an unlimited number of "Friends." Posts on "Like Pages" are shared on the Walls of everyone who has ever clicked the "Like" button at the top of the page.
The "Like" concept is more than just a user convenience. It integrates Facebook into the fabric of the Internet, makes Facebook membership more valuable. But most of all, it blurs the line between advertising and other content, leveraging the power of attention in the service of Facebook-based marketing.
And it also raises the question: When a user "Likes" an ad, does the resulting Facebook post itself constitute an ad?
Facebook's "Like" button started appearing in banner ads in October. But just this week, a new class-action lawsuit alleges that Facebook's "Like" feature on advertising uses minors in those ads without permission from parents.
When you see a Facebook "social ad," the names and profile pictures of your friends who clicked "Like" appear with the ad. It's Facebook's way of using peer pressure to make advertising more noticeable and persuasive.
The lawsuit says that when the names and faces of minors appear alongside these ads, it's equivalent to using them in print advertising without the permission of their parents, which is illegal.
But is it? It's an interesting question, and one that eludes an easy answer. In the meantime, "social ads" are a powerful advantage for Facebook that no other ad network can replicate.
The downside of "Like" buttons is perhaps that it accelerates the general dumbing-down and ad-centricity of the Internet. You can almost hear the world's attention span getting shorter and our actions being monetized.