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like buttonA few weeks ago, I was listening to my car radio and had a surreal moment. Driving down Highway 101, I heard my jam, and reached for my iPhone to press a “like” button. I quickly realized the absurdity of my action — this was, in fact, my very analog car radio.

Nonetheless, I proceeded to spend the rest of the day “like-ing” stuff I came across in the real world: someone brought cupcakes into a meeting — “like”; I heard an awesome company pitch — “like”; I colluded with marauding investors on seed valuations for Y Combinator companies, “like” (and tweet cc @arrington). Every time, it was as if I had given myself a virtual high-five and couldn’t wait to share it.

Clearly Facebook has trained me well.

Do I sound crazy? Maybe, but I’m not alone. According to All Facebook, last July more than 65 million people were “like-ing” stuff on a daily basis. That’s more than 17.5 billion “likes” over nine months (assuming a constant rate and no growth of Facebook traffic). In September, Mashable reported that the “like” button is now present on over 2 million sites around the Web. That’s a lot of new data about user intent, and it’s growing. Not bad for a feature that rolled out only nine months ago.

If 2010 was about gamification, then 2011 will belong to people who can figure out what to do with what we like.

Like-ification of the Web

“Likes” and the social graph that creates them represent a new contextual layer on top of the existing web. It’s a layer that brings new opportunities for discovery and personalization in a world where noise is expanding much faster than signal (see last week’s fire in the blogosphere about Google’s losing battle against spam). This has significant implications in areas like search. Bing and Blekko have already announced integration of “like” data into search results to help improve discovery and relevance. Expect better utilization of this data and new discovery services to follow suit.

Like-ification of advertising

The holy grail in advertising is when the content is the advertising and vice versa. “Like” data gives advertisers the ability to personalize their message to an audience of one and target messages only to those that have expressed intent and interest. While Facebook itself is in pole position to leverage this data, in the rapidly expanding display advertising business, like-ification also has big implications for other stakeholders in the space. Retargeting vendors like AdRoll, Retargeter, and TellApart are already using your click history as a proxy for consumer intent, and data vendors like BlueKai and eXelate are building intent data about consumers all around the web.

While I expect to see continued vigorous privacy debates as consumers lobby for the proper controls over their data, imagine the value of explicit social expressions of consumer interest as the display ad market continues to heat up in 2011.

Like-ification of the real world

Finally, “likes” are coming out of their digital cage and into the analog world. Digital metadata is being layered onto the physical world. And ubiquitous access to sensor-laden mobile devices means that user data and intent is now being captured about physical locations like “check-ins” on Foursquare and Facebook Places, personal activity with Nike Fit and FitBit, the things we buy on apps like StickyBits, and even the stuff we see (it’s not just TV — remember this awesome Word Lens translation demo?).

Saad KhanSmart devices are growing in number and even more stacked with real robotics capabilities (Near Field Communications chips, image recognition) embedded at consumer price points. Our personal devices can increasingly perceive the physical world, and it’s not hard to imagine the physical world increasingly recognizing us. My Xbox Kinect already authenticates my face and pairs it with my player profile. Imagine what that could mean for your status updates.

Big changes are afoot in 2011. I think entrepreneurs are going to heart them.

Saad Khan likes his day job as a seed investor at CMEA Capital and giving love to his portfolio companies Blekko, Pixazza, Evolution Robotics, and Jobvite. You can follow him on Twitter.

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