What the death of the Like’ tells us about ourselves

“It seems telling that we need ‘Likes’ taken away from us, even though we view caring about them as gauche and grotesque...”

If you’re like me – and I reck­on this is some­thing of a con­sen­sus view, because I’ve heard it repeat­ed enough across hack­neyed come­dies, think­pieces, grad­u­ate art exhi­bi­tions, TED talks, pub chats, over­heard in the street etc. etc. etc. – you’ll be aware that car­ing about social media Likes’ is vapid, vac­u­ous, craven and a hand­ful of oth­er res­olute­ly neg­a­tive adjectives. 

And yet despite know­ing all of this, you can’t help your­self. Get­ting that sweet, sweet push noti­fi­ca­tion that some­one has liked one of your posts feels good. Get­ting inter­ac­tion on your posts releas­es dopamine, appar­ent­ly, and this can pro­duce all sorts of mag­nif­i­cent­ly unhealthy behav­iour-alter­ing depen­den­cies and addictions.

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So much so that social media head hon­chos are pen­i­tent now. The for­mer vice pres­i­dent of Facebook’s user growth admits tremen­dous guilt” for mak­ing you want to use Face­book so damn much. Twit­ter founder Jack Dorsey is bold­er still: if he could go back and invent Twit­ter all over again, he swears he wouldn’t even code a Like’ func­tion this time. Not to be out­done, Face­book-owned Insta­gram is tri­alling hid­ing likes and view counts on its plat­form. CEO Adam Mosseri goes on: We want peo­ple to wor­ry a lit­tle bit less about how many Likes’ they’re get­ting on Insta­gram and spend a bit more time con­nect­ing with the peo­ple that they care about.”

It’s an announce­ment that war­rants con­flict­ing respons­es. There’s always a con­de­scend­ing (though pos­si­bly entire­ly fair!) impli­ca­tion in the peren­ni­al pos­tur­ing around Likes.’ We sim­ple­tons have bought into these mean­ing­less Likes’ way too hard, and their benev­o­lent cre­ators realise now that they must be done away with, for our own good.

Obvi­ous­ly, Likes’ are bad.’ They have been designed, devel­oped and engi­neered by com­pa­nies specif­i­cal­ly to keep you in thrall to their prod­uct, scrolling your life away, refresh­ing and refresh­ing, hop­ing for one more pre­cious inter­ac­tion. And they hold tan­gi­ble influ­ence over the way we con­struct our­selves. You don’t need a psy­chol­o­gy degree to iden­ti­fy that it’s val­i­dat­ing’ for some­one to Like’ your posts. So if you see some­one get­ting more Likes’ than you for osten­si­bly sim­i­lar posts, is it not tempt­ing to won­der… how come? Is this per­son fun­nier than me? More inter­est­ing? More attrac­tive? Are they worth more than me? Well, accord­ing to that Like’ counter — yes! Likes’ not only rein­force but make explic­it the social hier­ar­chies which gov­ern our col­lec­tive self worth. Of course we are affected.

Far from worth­less inter­net points, they are a demar­ca­tion of val­ue which we’ve come to rely on.” 

But they are far from mean­ing­less. They are one of the pri­ma­ry means by which algo­rithms col­late tru­ly fright­en­ing amounts of detail about you. Most­ly, this is to manip­u­late you into buy­ing prod­ucts; tai­lor­ing your user expe­ri­ence’ and the con­tent you get served’ until it finds you at your most sug­gestible to consumption.

What’s more, Likes’, shares, views, sub­scribers, fol­low­ers, traf­fic, dwell time, organ­ic reach etc. are what our media, our con­sumer habits, our leisure activ­i­ties, our beau­ty stan­dards, the food we eat – our entire real­i­ty is con­fig­ured around. It would be eas­i­er if these things real­ly were worth­less inter­net points, but they are a demar­ca­tion of val­ue which we’ve come to rely on. 

Social media’s allure has been in man­ag­ing to con­vince us that we can per­pet­u­al­ly increase this val­ue, and that Like’ coun­ters can pro­vide evi­dence of this progress. Recent moves to hide them sug­gests a dawn­ing real­i­sa­tion that this wasn’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly healthy thing to do.’ But is social media respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing these com­pul­sions, or has it mere­ly revealed our capac­i­ty for them?

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Humans have long been moti­vat­ed by that which gives us val­i­da­tion. Hear­ing laugh­ter after telling a hilar­i­ous joke isn’t so far removed from watch­ing the RTs roll in when you post it online. The per­son who ded­i­cates painstak­ing hours to craft­ing a meal for their friends wants some­thing akin to the per­son sling­ing up a pic­ture on social media — to be recog­nised as a tal­ent­ed chef with all that con­fers. The clothes you wear, the prod­ucts you can afford, the hol­i­days you take, the body you sculpt, the appear­ance you take pride in, the tal­ents you show off, the intel­lect and skills you accrue, the rela­tion­ships you forge, the life you lead – all of these can be val­i­dat­ed irl and url. We per­ceive the inter­net as inau­then­tic’, fake, as exist­ing in illu­so­ry cyber­space, but mag­ic inter­net points’ can hold real cur­ren­cy in the psyche.

Ours is a soci­ety obsessed with hier­ar­chy, with grad­ings and rank­ings. We are assigned num­bers and scores of almost entire­ly arbi­trary val­ue from the moment we enter edu­ca­tion. Big data rules every­thing, and every­thing has numer­i­cal val­ue. Your pro­duc­tiv­i­ty’ can be mea­sured by your employ­ers, your wage labour rat­ed by cus­tomers, your cred­it score affect­ed by bad decisions. 

You enter into com­pet­i­tive jobs mar­kets, dat­ing mar­kets, opin­ion mar­kets (‘the mar­ket­place of ideas.’) The art you con­sume is deemed to have mer­it accord­ing to sales, streams, views, shares, traf­fic, buzz, viral­i­ty, upvotes. We have been con­di­tioned to desire con­stant feed­back and affir­ma­tion, to be dri­ven towards tar­gets, to view our lives as in adver­sar­i­al com­pe­ti­tion with one anoth­er. All of these things are seen to be nor­mal.’ Wor­ry­ing about how many Likes’ you’re worth then, is an entire­ly log­i­cal exten­sion of the anx­i­eties inher­ent in mer­i­to­crat­ic’ free mar­ket neoliberalism.

It seems telling that we need Likes’ tak­en away from us, even though we view car­ing about them as gauche and grotesque. They make the grub­by lit­tle desires ingrained with­in us too trans­par­ent for com­fort. We know we shouldn’t care about Likes’, and yet they deplete our self-esteem and rid­dle us with neu­roses and psy­cho­log­i­cal issues. We know we shouldn’t care about such things because they have are intrin­si­cal­ly emp­ty and shouldn’t be used to sig­ni­fy the val­ue of any­thing. But our bizarre met­ric-focussed world demands that they do, and so we can’t help but find our­selves our­selves caring.


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