What Is Like?

like button

One day, Twitter changed its favorite button to a “like” button adorned with a little red heart. For a few hours the mock-rage was palpable. Then, in a quick turnaround, that all evaporated as users settled into the new normal. Did we like the favorite button? Are we sad it’s gone? It doesn’t matter – today it feels like the favorite never existed.

It’s become a bit of a tech cliche. Every time Facebook, Twitter, or some other social network changes its user interface, a million voices cry out and are suddenly silent. They lose interest: what was strange one hour becomes old news the next. Our “learning curve” on tech operates with blistering efficiency. Where else but the corporate web do we instantly adapt to changes we didn’t choose or anticipate?

Before I wrote this, I made a point to avoid the tech insiders and social media experts. I wanted my take on the change to be pure and unadulterated. And my take is this: the new like button is a very important change, not in itself, but because of what it stands for.

Building the bird’s nest

For better or worse, social media is our foremost utility for giving and receiving the written word. Twitter has become the roosting ground of choice for journalists, critics, and assorted members of the commentariat. It represents everything the mainstream writing market prizes: wit, brevity, celebrity, saying a lot with a little. It’s also a serious place to escape from “friends” and interact with strangers.

On the day of the change, I checked some of those strangers’ accounts, people I don’t know in person, people who care about written communication. Predictably, they had already posted variations on snark, witticism, and honest comment. Mostly tongue-in-cheek condemnations of the new interface. I may be more gullible than they: my initial response was simple confusion.

For a second or two after logging on, I didn’t comprehend that the favorite had a new face, that the change was just cosmetic. For a brief moment Twitter was an alien planet, an arena with changed rules and I the last to know. And that’s the problem with social media as a communications utility: great writing breaks rules, makes them up, and takes the reader beyond what’s on the page. But corporate social media binds us to its will from the moment we check the box marked “I agree.”

Is social media any worse than 20th century mass media, with its publishers and networks and gatekeepers? I’d argue that it does better on idea exchange (but not idea monetization). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the new problems it engenders.

Here are two reasons I think Twitter’s minor change is noteworthy. You may have considered these before, in various guises, but I’ll put them out there anyway.

“Liking” culture

What’s the history of the like? Why did such a noncommittal expression become so laden with social meaning? I’m taken back to elementary school, when it denoted childish crushes. Back then, “she likes him” was a very different statement than “I like playing with Legos.”

As adults, we’ve made the vocabulary of liking even more complicated. On social media, we subject a potential like to a series of mental conditionals before we even click the button. If I like this post, then what will so-and-so think? Liking, now as then, can mean many things. But the language of the like isn’t one of signifiers and semantics as much as messy unspoken codes.

Facebook’s proposed dislike button reveals the like’s feebleness when something is said earnestly, seriously, inviting love or hate. Those are times when the like feels wrong, when we are driven to cobble together phrases and write¬†a comment, however ungrammatical it might be. Writing is a productive act, in the simplest sense of making something that wasn’t there before.

On the flip side, the like button is consumerist. It’s a way to package and create reputation the same way money packages and creates value. It reduces all things to an eternal present where the eyes glaze over and the feed scrolls on, full of cute selfies, baseball games, and trips to Machu Picchu.

The Orwell effect

Don’t get me wrong, the present is a great place to be, maybe the best place. But when we write, we link past to present to future the way storytellers did for countless fire-lit centuries. We can like stories, but we can’t really tell them with likes alone. Social media simultaneously magnifies and suppresses our collective ability to tell stories.

It’s ironic that while Twitter is the utility of choice for writers and journalists, Facebook does a better job weaving historical record into its interface. Facebook’s timelines let users revisit posts and celebrate (or laugh at) past events and opinions. That can be jarring for Millennials who have radically changed during their years on Facebook! Twitter, for all its timeliness, is stuck in the present. All of its features prioritize what’s going on right now. All of them, that is, except the erstwhile favorite.

The name says it all: a favorite tweet was a bookmark, a way to preserve fleeting witticisms before they disappeared in the scroll-down abyss. Favorites let users keep track of interesting people without actually following them. The tool let us acknowledge the tragic or the negative without implying approval. Sure, we can do these things with the like, but a like isn’t really a bookmark at all. On Facebook, Instagram, etc, liking is spontaneous and quickly forgotten.

Which brings me to Orwell. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ruling regime edited old newspapers to make all of history match the Party line. Twitter’s change is less drastic, but it follows the pattern. Not only has Twitter abandoned the favorite; it has obliterated all evidence that the favorite ever existed. To a new user joining today, the like was always the like. My favorites are now listed as likes. But they weren’t likes when I clicked the button – they were favorites!

I don’t mean to complain about a petty distinction. I just want to point out how easy it is to rewrite history on social media, for the user and for the company. If these platforms are the record of our times, shouldn’t key decisions about them involve more than data collection and targeted advertising?

In the end, I like the like. To dislike the like would be pointless, and worse still, uncreative. The like is enfolding us in its bland, uncritical embrace. There’s nothing wrong with the like. But a world of likes has got me questioning, where is the love?

Photo credit: Owen W Brown via Flickr cc