John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Many online photo-sharing communities have a feature that enables you to indicate that you really like a particular image. In Flickr there's the “fav” - a red star button above a photo that visitors can click to show that they consider it one of their favorite images. A list of the images that a person “fav’ed” also is available in his or her home area within Flickr and can be viewed by visitors. Statistics that appear with an image include the number of favs it received.
There are similar systems in Google where it's called a "plus" and in Flickr where people can offer a "like." Even though this little reward seems to be a relatively simple type of action, it has acquired a variety of psychological and social functions, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle:
Personal Impact: People may fav, plus, or like an image when it has a strong emotional impact on them. That impact might come from the meaning and/or the visual qualities of the image, although the meaning tends to be the more influential factor, rather than simply captivating visual qualities that result in “eye candy” images. Members describe such favs in terms of their immediate reaction to the image, its “Wow Factor", how beautiful and inspiring it is, how it made them laugh, its fascinating perplexities, how it speaks to them, resonates with them, or touched them on a deep level. These types of favs, likes, and pluses may help visitors express their appreciation of the photo when they feel its impact but are not sure why, or cannot adequately verbalize why. Members who only fav an image when it has a powerful effect on them tend to reserve such favs for special occasions, when photographers “earn” them.
Technical or Artistic Merit: Viewers may offer a fav, plus, or like as an acknowledgment of the technical or artistic skill demonstrated in the photo. They might like images that demonstrate excellent examples of their own style of photography, reveal technical and artistic ideas that are new to them, or illustrate admirable skills even though the image itself does not match the visitor’s preferred tastes. They might be looking for affirmation of their own photography in others’ images, or new ways of doing photography. When visitors wish to offer helpful feedback, the fav, plus, or like may not indicate that the photo is actually a favorite for them, but rather that this particular image is the photographer’s best effort, in the eyes of the visitor. In some cases a process of social conformity emerges in which people give this reward to an image because many other people have already given it one. Some viewers might not give a fav, plus, or like when an image has already received many of them - perhaps out of a sense of envy, not wanting to be just another person applauding, or perhaps because they feel the photographer has already received enough attention.
Social Support: A visitor might offer a fav, plus, or like to support and encourage other members when they are new at doing photography, attempting something different in their work, or taking a risk of some kind. As a form of non-verbal behavior, this type of reward serves as an acknowledging smile, a nod of the head, a pat on the back, or applause. Beginners appreciate such reactions as a gesture of mentoring from more experienced photographers. People who fav, plus, or like as an indication of personal impact and technical/artistic merit tend to do so selectively. Those who offer it for social support tend to be more liberal. Some members who start out being very “stingy” about their rewards eventually use them more freely, most likely in the spirit of encouraging social support.
Feeling Good: Some people find themselves offering more of these little gifts when they're in a good mood. Others say doing so helps them feel better when they're in a bad mood. It's a well-known fact in psychology that doing nice things for other people can make you feel good.
Friendship: The fav, plus, or like can be a gesture of friendship. People give them to friends, or in hopes of establishing an amiable relationship. As a type of social grooming, offering one shows enthusiasm about a friend’s performance, mostly because it is the friendship that is important and not necessarily the image. Some members feel more inclined to reward the photos of friends than those of acquaintances and strangers, probably because they think of the fav, plus, or like as a sign of intimacy and camaraderie.
Social Barter: Similar to comments on a photo, a fav, plus, or like can function as an item for bartering. When one receives a fav from a visitor, one gives a fav in return; or one may give a plus with the hope or expectation that the other member will reciprocate. The value of the fav, plus, or like rests not only in its being a sign of appreciation, but also in the fact that the number of them for an image boosts its overall status in the community.
Efficient Communication: The fav, plus, and like can serve as a substitute for leaving a comment on a photo when people can’t find the words to describe why they liked it, when they don’t have time to leave a comment, or when they lack facility in the photographer’s language. It’s a non-verbal way to indicate one’s presence in the photographer’s photostream and an appreciation of a particular image. In some cases people consider it rude when visitors leave a fav or plus without an accompanying comment, especially when that visitor is regarded as a friend. However, other members are more apt to fav or plus, rather than comment, if they view photography in terms of experiential or gut reactions rather than verbal analysis.
Remembrances: Although some members rarely look at the images that are stored in their fav and plus collection, others do return to these photos. Using these favs or pluses as reminders of the types of images they enjoyed, they may discover patterns in their preferences that lead to insights about the technical, artistic, and personal dimensions of their photography. They may wish to recapture some mood, idea, or inspiration that the image initially triggered, as in photos that cheered them up when they were depressed. As components of one’s social network, stored favorite photos also include links back to the image and the photostreams of those photographers, thereby serving not just as souvenirs or reminders of those people, but also as implicit interpersonal connections to them. In online communities that are large, complex, and potentially overwhelming, vehicles for remembering and reconnecting, such as the fav, are important interpersonal tools.
Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche