The Facebook Culture of 'Like'

May 14, 2014
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I open up Facebook and scroll through my updates. The usual assortment of fluff, happy announcements and informational clips predominates - someone posts a photo of what they ate for supper (25 Likes), another person posts a funny video clip (18 Likes), a birth announcement (300 Likes), a post about the coordinated outfits someone's children wore that day (40 Likes), a new job announcement (159 Likes), a link to a news article (5 Likes) and so on.

Among these lighter servings, some serious comments: a young mother of two has just been told she has a malignant tumor, and asks for prayers (68 Likes), and a woman is asking for prayers that her husband will attend a couples weekend, as their marriage is about to dissolve and he is no longer interested in working things out (90 Likes). Finally, a death announcement (35 Likes).

I stare at these serious comments for a long time. These are cries of deep human anguish and grief, shared in brief snippets by strangers in my Facebook groups, and I wonder how to respond. Clicking "Like" on comments like these seems very odd. Yes, I understand - since there is no other button, it has come to mean something akin to "I hear you" or "have read this" or "I sympathize". But that is only on Facebook. In the real world, the word "Like" continues to mean "to take pleasure in", and that is still my gut understanding of the word "Like".

It is strange when someone expresses deep personal sorrow and that comment is followed by "Likes", as if the readers were indicating that they had enjoyed the whole spectacle. Which makes me wonder, why isn't there another button on Facebook, something to indicate "I'm so sorry", "I will pray for you," "I send you my condolences, my sympathy", "I feel bad for you," or "I understand", or any other of the myriad of human emotions? And why isn't there a neutral button, something to say "I have read this comment" without having to say I liked it too? And in fact, it would be great to have a button for "I read this but don't like it" - that is, something like "thumbs down."

But no, there is just one button, the Like button. Facebook is built around the "Like" button, and I wonder how much that says about us as a culture, and how much it is shaping us as a culture.

Nearly everyone is on Facebook these days, and what that means is that is everyone is engaged in electronically marketing themselves, in creating their personal "brand" - the image of themselves and of their lives that they want to portray to the world.

It has gotten quite shameless, really. Airbrushed magazine-quality photos of individuals, as well as idyllic family photos (vacations and more), are not at all unusual. It all goes to build the image. I used to think these photos demonstrated vanity, but now I also suspect another motive - the desire to be "Liked." Portraying happiness is a way of attracting people to ourselves.

Aside from personal lives, the topics and interests that we post about also go towards building our brand. And it is here that I wonder: could the "Like" button be making us less truthful, less genuine, less candid? Could it be making us more afraid of speaking up and risking controversy, because our brand may be less "Liked"?

Being conventional is safe. Fitting into the middle is safe. Speaking up about light topics is safe. But rocking the boat and speaking up against convention could well reduce the "Like" count, not to mention a bunch of permanent negative comments tacked on, all serving to tarnish the personal brand.

Given that so many teenagers are now using Facebook, I can see how the focus on "Likes" would only serve to enhance the teenage drive towards conformity. Teenagers are a hugely peer-oriented crowd to begin with, very concerned with what their peer group thinks of them. With popularity as the driving force, the counting and comparing of numbers of friends and likes is surely a widespread phenomenon.

But Facebook is making even adults a lot like teenagers these days. We have never been so openly quantified before, so transparent to our friends and foes in terms of our social networks and circles of influence. It can make us nervous. And competitive. And less than honest in our portrayal of our lives and interests. And finally, I believe it can also make us more conformist, because that is where popularity is to be found - in the mellow middle.

If that is true, it's not good news for our democracy, because the more concerned we are with our popularity, the more non-confrontational and sheeplike we become, and the more easily our rights and freedoms can be curtailed and even taken away.

(Final note: the situations mentioned at the start are based on real posts that have been in my Facebook updates, but not all on the same day, and the number of Likes these comments received is fictional, as I do not have the final counts).

Photo: angermann via photopin cc

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