// essays //
Do you like me?:
Deconstructing a Virtual Phenomenon
Last month, while lounging in one of my favorite campus eateries, I overheard a fellow student bellow excitedly to her friend, “How was the wedding last night?” Equally giddy, the friend responded: “Sooo amazing! ‘Like’ all my pics in the album on Facebook!” Their encounter went on for what felt to me like an eternity—probably forty-five seconds—and consisted mainly of discussing the minutiae of who-wore-what but concluded with a pause and then the wedding-goer stating in an unexpectedly perfervid tone, “But seriously, ‘like’ all my pics.”
Instead of using the ‘like’ as an expression of care or interest, the ‘like’ has transformed into a vehicle of approval in a way that alienates others. Don’t ask me questions about the wedding face-to-face, take your enthusiasm online. And it would appear that the ‘like’ is more valuable in number than in nature. ‘Like’ all the pics, don’t just ‘like’ your favorite one. It is remarkable how a simple click of the button can be so satisfying.
Interactions these days can take any number of forms: face-to-face, telephonic, or, of course, social-media. There are, in other words, a great many ways to interact with others, which thus raises the question: What does it really mean to interact in light of these new circumstances? This might seem like an annoying, terribly over/under-thought, and stuck up question, but it undoubtedly resonates with those of you who interact with one another online. Moreover, what is the common thread between, say, liking someone and ‘liking’ their pictures and posts?
Interacting with other people essentially consists of exchanging information with other people in an interested and mutually reaffirming manner. And unless you are like my physics teacher from high school, you probably do this on a pretty normal basis. These days social media enables us to do this speedily and simply, and people can approve or supposedly show empathy or agreement with a post on Facebook and Instagram by ‘liking’ it. Through the ‘like’ you can show affection and essentially convey that you are thinking of the poster or the subject(s) of the post. Understanding the true value of the ‘like’, however, is not easy. Does it matter who the ‘like’ is from and the intentions behind it? Does it matter who sees the ‘like’? Is this all in our heads?
What is so satisfying about the ‘like’? For starters, everyone else can see that your picture has been ‘liked.’ A ‘like’ is irresistibly quantifiable, not only can everyone else see that the picture has been liked, they can also see exactly how many ‘likes’ that picture has garnered. And collecting large amounts of ‘like’s, especially big round numbers like 100 or 200, can become a sort of game. The ‘like’ is then easily turned into a social currency, and amassing ‘like’s is a way of asserting one’s social prowess. As you get more and more notifications that people are ‘liking’ your picture from that great thing you did that one time or that funny thing you once wrote, you tell yourself that real people (real people are doing the ‘liking’ after all) must think you’re just awesome. Other people on social media can see your ‘like’ count going up as well, so even people who did not ‘like’ the post may think you’re living the ‘like’-worthy life. A concerted effort to amass ‘like’s–recall our wedding friend–is not about connecting honestly with your friends, but rather reflects a mission to accumulate perceived social capital. In sum, your life–or yours and others’ perception of it–gets richer with every thumbs up.
When giving something a ‘like,’ when hitting that button for one of your friend’s posts, are you similarly thinking that your friend whose post you are ‘liking’ is so cool, and that you are a Central Bank of “Likes” minting social currency and then distributing them to those you think are deserving? Or are you just ‘liking’ something because you like your friend or agree with their post? Or is it all just out of mindless habit? In ‘liking’ something on Facebook or Instagram we can very well be doing it for some combination of all three of these reasons, but there is still probably some form of asymmetry between the intentions of the poster and the ‘liker.’ Someone amassing ‘like’s is interpreting getting more ‘like’s as a way to be seen as socially superior no matter the intention of the persons handing out the ‘like’s. After all, I sometimes find myself thinking about how many ‘like’s a particular post has received, not how many ‘like’s I give out.
But the ‘like’ does not necessarily need to have such squalid intentions. The ‘like’ could instead be a way to connect with friends and show compassion and care for another. Every ‘like’ does not have to be such a deep expression of these emotions, but it could just be a part of general human interactions and connection building. If someone is just trying to amass ‘like’s as an end in itself, then this care for your friend is no longer present. There is a certain amount of alienation at play in this situation: the human connection is not valued.
Most of the time, posters don’t even look at who exactly is ‘liking’ their post, but rather all they care about is the fact that they have received many ‘like’s. But ‘like’s being attached to a real name, even a name that does not matter so much to the ‘like’ amasser, holds significance because it indicates–at least theoretically–that real people think that the poster is doing something well.
When I was younger, every so often the profile picture of a smiling middle schooler or high school freshman would pop up on my news feed with the caption “Share for likes!!!” People were sharing the picture in order for it be ‘like’d, and it did not matter to the original poster if the likes on the picture came from people he or she did not know. All that was important was that people were ‘liking’ the picture. People were approving of the picture and the person in that picture in a way that made the little number counter on the bottom right of the picture go up. And that’s just what the original poster seemingly wanted.
The social currency of the ‘like’ is perceived by the person amassing the ‘like’s as a sign of approval, and the more people like it the more they are being approved of. The people on the other end are basically just things, a mere means to reach approval and the satisfaction that comes with being ‘liked.’ Searching then for the perfect profile picture, going tremendous lengths to make sure everything looks absolutely stunning can potentially be just a way to gain approval. Real life social interactions can similarly alienate and reify others, but on the internet it can be so much easier due to distance from the Other (as many have pointed out) and with specific mechanisms such as the ‘like’ which can be easily turned into currency
But it remains ambiguous, which ‘like’ is sincere and which ‘like’ amasser is not really a ‘like’ amasser at all and actually values the human connection and care that a sincere ‘like’ accomplishes? It is hard to know and many of these ‘like’s and ‘like’ amassers really are not that bad. Like most things though, the ‘like’ should not be limited by its possibility for malicious dystopian [social] capitalist uses.
The most ‘like’d picture I have been in to date was from my sister’s business school graduation last May. My mother posted a picture of my sister in her cap and gown, my parents, and me. The picture got 247 ‘like’s and 51 comments (almost all the comments were along the lines of “Congratulations!”). There seemed to be a genuine outpouring of support from many of the ‘like’s. There might have been plenty that were not quite as sincere, and my mother and sister could feel very cool for getting so many ‘like’s, perhaps more ‘like’s than their peers that week. But when people genuinely care and ‘like’ something because of that care and the poster feels the same about receiving that ‘like,’ it does make a difference. When you post something not to simply amass ‘like’s but rather to enable your friends share in your happy times, the post feels a little less alienated and a little more….liked.
 Henceforth ‘like’ denotes ‘liking’ something on social media via clicking on the ‘like’ button, and the word like without the partial quotation marks relates to liking outside of context of social media.
 This theoretically could lead to devalued ‘like’ by way of seigniorage if people are too liberal with handing out their ‘likes.’ But the fact that people themselves are limited keeps the value of ‘like’s stable. The value of the ‘like’ lies in the fact that real people are passing them out and not in their relative scarcity.
 Admittedly I usually think this about my own posts and not the posts of others.
 A New York Times article from last year brings to light the relative ease with which one can buy fake Twitter followers. But if everyone knew that certain ‘like’s and followers came from phony accounts, surely they would be valued less. Here is an additional, more recent, article.
 It is worth pointing out that to the ‘like’ amasser ‘like’s are fungible. Every ‘like’ is mutually substitutable and holds the same value. On the other hand, the most sincere ‘like’s are not necessarily fungible—you probably care more about receiving ‘like’s from people that mean the most to you or whose opinions are harder to win over.
// MATT LANDES is a Sophomore in Columbia College. He can be reached at email@example.com. Photo courtesy of flickr user Kristian Niemi.