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.
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?
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.