What Does the ‘Like’ Button Really Do/Mean?

like button

One of the most tragic paradigms of the human intellect is that of literalism. When we fail to address or understand things beyond their face value, beyond the most obvious observations and descriptions, we not only fail to fully understand something, but gain a false and delusional understanding of it in the process. When so many of our starting premises for our opinions, ideas and beliefs are constructed from these literalist misreadings of reality, it begins to have a massive effect, one that remains invisible behind the wall of literalism we have constructed through consensus.

The most unfortunate sort of literalism is that which we apply to ourselves. When our self-concept and self-awareness becomes constructed around delusions spun out of a refusal to investigate our deeper motivations, intent and inconsistencies, it becomes possible for us to become our own worst enemies. We can be unwitting co-conspirators of everything that we despise in the world when we fail to read more deeply into our own thinking and behaviors. And we can also be manipulated by those with a better sense of the power of obfuscation through literalism. And as distasteful and painful as it may be to hear, most of us are guilty of taking things too literally or shallowly much of the time.

I could spend days discussing the ways in which literalism becomes a tool of self-delusion, but for the purposes of this article, I wish to discuss the function and meaning of positive social media rewards and how our failure to exercise self-awareness may be having disastrous consequences on our social and intellectual environments. So before I discuss how this literalism becomes problematic, let us look specifically at Facebook and the ‘like’ button and try to understand the full range of motivations we exercise when clicking it.

I do not specifically or literally like this, but I am clicking like (etc.) because…

  • I approve of your interest/fascination with the topic.
  • I want to appear friendly.
  • I want you to feel safe in this conversation so you continue to play along.
  • I have not liked anything of yours for awhile, so I will like this to remind you that I like you.
  • I want to remind you that I exist.
  • I really dislike ‘the opposite’ of this.
  • I feel sorry for this person and want to show support, regardless of the content of the thing I liked.
  • This confirms my biases.
  • This validates me.
  • I want you to like me.
  • I will ironically like your insult in an attempt to dis-empower it.
  • I like everything I see on this topic, regardless of actual content.
  • I appreciate that this probably annoys certain types of people.
  • I want to smash my genitals with this person’s genitals.
  • To appease The Algorithms.

Some of these reasons are purely manipulation. Some are genuine attempts at kindness. Others are measured activity for specific effect. We use likes to rig the system, whether it is the rigid social media system itself or the only loosely definable system of human relationships and social interaction. But this much is clear, ‘like’ does not always mean you actually ‘like’ something. And if we are being honest we would see that most of our ‘likes’ are either not steeped in an actual appreciation, or off of one so weak that we are watering down the nature of appreciation itself.

Human values are largely constructed from consensus. What we view as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is, at the very, least strongly influenced by what we believe others also view as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Values do not necessarily gain their worth through majority rule, but they are often formed by it. And this process is largely non-conscious. We do not walk around aware of the fact that we are absorbing other peoples values, or that we are creating them. It just happens little by little over time. There are rarely any apparent indicators of this process in the real world. Most of the reward/punishment stimulation happens in the sub-context of our interactions. But in social media, this is quite different. We are aware of our ability to reward certain thoughts and behaviors using ‘likes’ or ‘upvotes’ or any of the similar social media tools. But that awareness of the tool is becoming increasingly ignorant of the cost, long term effects and larger understanding of it. We are creating new sets of human values without really understanding that we are doing it or how it is being done. And although this is true of humans throughout history, we are now doing is at an exponentially rapid rate. We are reconstructing reality and our values at unprecedented speeds.

One can drive a car a few miles per hour and not pay much attention to what is going on around them, and there will probably not be very great consequences if something goes wrong. But when you speed up and continue to speed up more and more without raising your awareness to match, you are almost certainly heading straight for a disaster. This is true of both automobiles and social paradigms. The like button may still look and feel like a slow car, but that is because it sped up slowly without us realizing it, as often happens when we experience things incrementally relative to our position to them. That car is now hauling ass and our ignorance and/or denial is going to lead to a disaster if we don’t increase our awareness of the car, the road and ourselves.

Back to social media. The like button and its counterparts are tools that the programmers use to determine what content we will see in our feeds through calculated algorithms. This keeps their content in the range that their advertisers want. When we ‘like’ something we are setting an agenda. And when we set that agenda we are creating mainstream paradigms and manufacturing normality. And thus we are creating values. This makes social media a powerful tool for ideological revolutions. We can create new norms and overthrow old dogmas by manufacturing consent for new ideas using social media tools. Yet this requires a highly organized and self-aware set of behaviors to be coordinated by large numbers of individuals. And while that is happening, far more often social media is being used with far less understanding and consciously calculated attempt to create better values.

This is where those ‘fake’ ‘likes’ become a problem. They are working to create values without awareness that they are doing so, or even necessarily what values they are creating, and what the effects and consequences of them will be. When our reasoning for using the like tool is done without regard to the effect that doing so has, we are transforming our value systems rapidly and blindly.

This happens in a lot of various ways, but let us illustrate it with some examples.

There is a man. He is a very handsome man. Very handsome. Even a profile picture of this man can douse panties faster than a fire hose. However, this man is also very stupid and somewhat immoral. He ends up posting idiotic political ideas a lot. Most of his followers do not agree with his stupid beliefs, opinions and ideas. But damn if they wouldn’t give up a year of their life just to have a steamy encounter with the man. So in the chance that there is any hope he will notice them, they like his posts, even when they mostly disagree with them. Over time, people see all of these likes and wonder if this guys isn’t on to something. Women view him as valuable to other women, which raises his attractiveness and the ‘likes’ it brings. Men view his worldview as appealing to women, and so begin to adopt it. Over time, the handsome man has gained a following of people who would have never approved of or shared his values on their own. But the subcontext provided by his attractiveness manufactured consensus over time.

Another…

There is a woman. She is a stupid and petty woman. People show up in her post threads just to watch the train wreck. The thing is, if she suspects you disagree with her, she will either ignore you or block you. So in an attempt to stay on that horse, people like her comments and give brief nods of consent. Over time the woman becomes more certain and enamored of her idiotic beliefs. Her confidence becomes a fuel which propels her into an even greater spotlight. And the more spotlight she gets, the more it appears that she deserves it. And the more it appears that she deserves it, the more skepticism breaks down and her audience grows. As it does, her idiotic and often hateful ideas grow with her. And thus ‘likes’ that were given ironically become a force which actually empower the target of scorn.

Another…

Many people have come to be critical of the government. Therefore when we see a post that is critical of government, we like it to insure that government-critical messages are seen throughout social media. The problem is, these critical messages often contain an error in their reasoning or an untenable solution to the problem. So when we like this message based on the criticism factor alone, in order to make it more visible, we are also making the erroneous logic and poor solutions more visible. Since we cannot choose how others will receive these packages of ideas, the greater effect might be something we would not have chosen to contribute towards. Where we liked the criticism of government because we wish to see an end to that institution, others may see a message that says that since government is flawed, we need more government to fix the flawed parts. So our like actually contributes to intellectual and social momentum that goes against our values.

There are likely millions of ways in which our ‘likes’ may have such similar unintended effects. And these effects, though perhaps not intentional, are shaping the world we live in. While using social media reward tools is a conscious action, the outcomes it produces are something far harder to determine. So we should exercise a high degree of awareness about our use of this tool. We should reserve our ‘likes’ for things that we not only truly and actually appreciate, but only for those that we find great meaning in. We have cheapened likes through overuse and as a result it is cheapening our values. We may give these likes with the very best of intentions, but that is merely the content of ‘liking’. Far more influential on the world we live in than content, is context. And the context of the like mechanism is incredibly complex. When something is incredibly complex, it is wise not to use it unless you are certain it is absolutely appropriate.

This is not just nitpicking. Our world is rapidly transforming. The central tenet and ends of this transformation is reputation. Reputation is being constructed from platforms like social media and tools like the like button. If we are not very careful and consciously alert of the world we are shaping with these tools, then we are going to end up a sloppy, gaudy mishmash of accidental values that result in a technological dystopia. We are in a transition period in which the rapid construction of a new era for humanity is being formed through interactions that are happening without a very great degree of awareness. If we do not begin to exercise some self-restraint and control and start to consider our actions in a much larger context, then we are in that proverbial car I mentioned earlier, using our heads to press the acceleration pedal down instead of to look out the windshield and see where we are heading and what else is out there.

I plan to begin using the ‘like’ button much less. Almost not at all. It is unfortunate that some people will find me to be cold and anti-social for doing so. I will almost certainly be measured by the stinginess of my like button usage. My failure to provide reward stimulus in social media forums will probably get me ignored or distrusted and despised. I will likely appear to be a total dick for not playing along with the game of coercive and compulsive liking. Yet I assure you that I do so not because I do not value the contributions and thoughts of others, but because I value them too much to water them down with automata and overly obvious behaviors.

Here is how I will now be using the like button, and suggest others who share my concerns do the same. Only like original content that I completely agree with and support. If I have no connection to the person who created the content, chances are that I will not like it unless the topic/subject and the ideas about them are something I am actually truly and fully amazed by. I will never like a meme, for it comes with its own complex set of problems. I will not like comments, unless they contain content that is absolutely flooring. Liking something just because I agree is intellectually dishonest, condescending and pretentious. I will no longer like anything for a reason other than that I actually specifically and literally like the actual content concerned as well as the context which it belongs in and contributes towards. And while I am certain that this is not going to make me very popular in social media, as least I can be comfortable knowing that I am not contributing to the Idiocracy by misusing and underestimating a very powerful tool that is shaping our future whether we believe and understand that or not.

It is not the things that we intend to do that become ruinous to our species and world- it is the things we do not intend to do, understand that we did, or that produce outcomes contrary to our intent because we didn’t think it far enough through. Humans can no longer just do what feels good and hope for the best. Our civilization is far too complex and becoming increasingly so. We stand now on the precipice of enlightenment or oblivion, and only constant attention to the world around us and making the right choices based on a high degree of understanding will save us from the latter.

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