Why I’m Done with Social Media Buttons

February 7, 2014 / Design

As designers, it is our job to question why interface elements should exist. Sometimes we get so caught up in new ideas about navigation and animations that we forget to go back and examine more common elements—like social media buttons.

They are unsightly relics of the web 2.0 era, yet they continue to find their way into new designs. Why does this happen?

I’ve never been fond of them, but for a long time they seemed necessary. Trading some visual appeal for social network traffic is a compromise that many make. Plus, it is easy to hop on the bandwagon. If Mashable uses them, why shouldn’t I?

I followed that premise for a long time, but this is my stop. I’m hopping off. Those magical social buttons aren’t worth a damn anymore, and they won’t bring you traffic.

Anti-Social Media Buttons

Signal Tower is a show where I interview designers, developers and entrepreneurs. It is a great project. Recently, I posted an interview with Jennifer Dewalt, who taught herself to program by building 180 websites in 180 days.

It was an amazing feat, and not surprisingly the interview is among the most popular on the site. It has been shared hundreds of times.

However, there is something interesting about those shares—not one of them occurred by clicking on a social media button. According to my in-page analytics, the buttons haven’t been touched in the month since the interview has been published.

Initially, I thought that it was some sort of bug. Certainly someone clicked them, right? I decided to take a look at older posts. In all cases they had been used a negligible amount.

I’m not the only one who has seen lackluster performance out of sharing buttons. My friend Samuel Hulick, who runs useronboard.com, actually saw an increase in sharing once the buttons were removed.

Samuel’s experience may be an anomaly, but there is definitely a trend here. Either way, I’ve decided to remove the buttons from Signal Tower, and will not add them to this site.

The conversion-minded designers will say, “Why didn’t you test the buttons? You should change the color,  move them to the top, or try fixed, floating buttons.” And they are right. There is a good amount to be gained by A/B testing them, but there is another reason I’m getting rid of them.

Sharing, a Poor User Experience

I never paid much attention to sharing buttons. I always thought they were a poor user experience.

I’m a minimalist. When it comes to web design, I value white space, typography and function. People come to your site for the writing, which is why a focus on these elements will almost always result in a good user experience. Adding non-essential elements to a page reduces signal and creates noise.

If you are on the internet for the cat pictures, this does not apply.

Beyond the added noise there are other odd experiences using social buttons. Clicking on a button opens a popup window filled with oddly formatted text, marketing speak, and a ton of other stuff I don’t want to send out to friends and followers. All of the above degrades credibility.

Popups are awkward. Even moreso on phones and tablets, which brings up another point. Every phone and tablet has a browser with built-in sharing, and mobile devices are gaining marketshare.

What Major Websites Don’t Use Sharing Buttons?

The one that immediately comes to mind is Information Architects. A design group known for devout minimalism. Oliver Reichenstein,  IA’s founder, wrote a scathing article on social media buttons called, Sweep the Sleaze.

Reichenstein is right, “If readers are too lazy to copy and paste the URL, and write a few words about your content, then it is not because you lack these magical buttons.”

There are other popular sites that have forgone social buttons. 37signals (now Basecamp), the company that ushered in the era of SaaS businesses and invented Ruby on Rails, have a blog called Signal vs. Noise. You won’t find any on their blog.

Smashing Magazine, one of the world’s leading design publications has forgone them. As a result of removing the Like Button, they discovered that more readers shared articles on their timeline.

Closing Thoughts

There are some redeeming values to sharing buttons. A post with buttons that show thousands of shares definitely boosts credibility. It signals that there is quality content, and others are vouching for it. Simply having the buttons on the page also subtly reminds visitors that they should share the content.

On the other hand, what if nobody has shared your post? There are fewer things more sorry than a post that has a dozen buttons with zeros next to them.

The evidence against social media buttons is stacking up. The novelty and utility of social media buttons have worn off. It is time to reconsider how much value they add.

If people really love your content, they’ll share it.