There they sit, giving the ‘thumbs-up’ to our lives, affirming that all is okay in our world. The ubiquitous “like” button, the “like” option or “recommend” button are familiar features of many social media websites. The ‘like” feature on a social network site or blog allows readers to express their positive emotional and cognitive reactions to the story or feature they have just read. By a simple click on an icon the reader is able to say that they like, enjoy or support this content, the person who wrote or posted the content, the look of the content… As well as gathering your click of affirmation, the number of members of the public who have also “liked” the feature is often displayed besides the button and instantly providing information about reactions to the content with a quantitative assessment and feedback of how “liked” the feature or content is among all readers. This is a convenient element of many social media sites that acts as an alternative to having to take time and to have to deploy mental energy giving a written response to the item if you wish to express how much you have liked this. The act of clicking the like button and affirming the content’s positive reaction upon you is an action, an activity, an involvement that may make us feel that we are part of the content and also what may be an enormous number of similar minded people: ‘a liking community’.
What are the social and psychological consequences of the liking community? I ask this question as in previous generations liking was so easily given and so instantly registered and fed to the world. Does being able to like, be liked, to become a member of the liking community, have psychological and sociological sequalie and if so, what are these? Furthermore, if there are personal and social outcomes associated with the innocent like feature, should we be concerned with the effects of being a ‘liking society’?
Facebook is the worlds largest social media website and online community. It is also a place where an enormous proportion of contemporary life, and our friendships and relationships are enacted. Facebook is also the champion of the like button. In this essay I claim that I believe the like button grew out of an ever more correct minded society, a social ordering in which we make positive comments to our children, our friends and co-workers, at the exclusion of stating negative comments or even simply qualifying our affirmations.
The point that I am making here is that the like button is turning contemporary society into an “all positive”, non-critical collective and that our so-called likes are contributing to a radical distortion of who and what we are both as a society and as individuals. Let me expand upon this assertion by providing an example from Facebook. In regard to this website, I say “so-called” when I talk about the Facebook “like” button because there is no alternative to liking something except simply ignoring the content and passing on in silence (an action by the way, of which Baruch Spinoza would have been proud, but that’s another essay). As readers of a Facebook entry we are unable to contextualize our liking or to dislike something and we are unable to like or dislike to a given extent: it is all or nothing and it’s always affirmation or nothing.
Returning to the societal context of social media, as I have already said, many of us have as individuals, learnt to provide constructive rather than destructive criticism. Theoretically, this is obviously sensible as doing this has a greater chance of producing change in the direction you wish, as we tend to react positively to constructive criticism and to put up barriers to negative critiques, that we often perceive as an attack. Morally, it also feels as if being positive is the right course of action. However, in the real world, during face-to-face interactions and even in feedback situations such as student appraisals, there is usually an opportunity to discuss the feedback you are giving with the recipient of your communication. This is often not the case when we use the isolated like feature, and even if there is an opportunity to give an open text response, only the most motivated among us and the most capable typists, take the time and effort to do this.
If we agree that providing positive criticism is a desirable way to proceed, another part of what I believe to be problematic with the liking feature is the fact that to provide positive criticism to achieve the annulment of a negative state, a positive alternative needs to exist. I will give an example to better explain what I mean here. If a political party, for example, and it could be any party, posts some content on Facebook and I totally sympathize with what they are saying, I can constructively ‘like’ the posting. If however I totally disagree with their posting I am not able to ‘dislike’ the content. Rather, in this example I have to find politically opposite content on Facebook and ‘like’ this. However, there are several problems here. First, no such opposite content may be present and in this case I remain silent and my opposition is no different to the reaction of someone experiencing apathy. Furthermore, if I do find opposing content on Facebook and I am able to like this, there is no guarantee, or even likelihood, that my liking of this content will be related to the issues raised in the original article I was disliking. The problem here is that there is no dialog between alternatives. Another setback arises if I partly agree with or agree only with sections of a posting or the opposing posting. In this situation the like button allows only unequivocal support to be given.
At this point you may ask if what I am calling a problem really is a problem? I believe that until Facebook (and the growing number of social media sites that allow more specialized communication between users) became one of the most common ways in which we communicate there was little in this situation to worry about. However, now that communication and Facebook (and social media) are in many ways synonyms, especially for younger generations, I fear the lack of comparative alternative and negative evaluations threaten our ability and willingness to practice informed decision-making and innovation. Facebook is by far the largest and most important social media website. However, other similar sites do include a dislike button, enabling users to vote either for or against an event. Still other sites have a 5 star voting system but this system implies some degree of liking, as there is no dislike or negative option other than not to vote. However, not voting does not register dislike as abstinence is not counted nor is abstinence due to disliking distinguishable from any other reason for not clicking ‘like’.
I believe that society may be becoming less critical or even at times none critical. In this context I would like you to think of any socially disliked event. I am not here talking about major events, life and death issues or wide ranging governmental legislation, but rather I would like you to focus upon the sort of events that give our cultures their richness, the type of information an anthropologist may look at when considering the prevailing timbre in a culture: the entertainment we like, the products we buy, our comments upon the society in which we live. I believe that the liking society is in danger of losing innovation due to the fact that on Facebook and some other social media sites, it is not possible for someone to ‘like’ an alternative or support an ‘innovatory something’ if it does not already exist or is on the verge of existence: The same is also true of potential changes in societies. Both politicians and marketers are gathering more and more of this type of ‘liking’ data from social network sites and using this to target consumers and to design their marketing and political campaigns. Marketers and politicians narrowly define consumer segments using Facebook, where segmentation is performed based upon peoples’ likes and preferences and thus product, service or political innovation is restricted to existing options. The like button is used to track user activities to enable targeted advertising, much like in the film Minority Report. This leads to concerns about individual privacy. If you click a Facebook ‘like’ button on other websites (websites other than Facebook) you may be providing information to the Facebook Corporation and enabling this company to make money through advertising targeted to your likes.
Is this why there is no dislike button?