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“I like this!”

You’d think a sentence like that would have a pretty clear meaning, wouldn’t you? If that whole 3 word sentence is a little complex, then surely the single word “like” must convey something pretty simple and obvious.

Unless it doesn’t.

But before I go on to suggest what I mean by that, let’s take a moment to note that that word alone is creeping (by itself even) into more and more of our public discourse. (Now there is a word I haven’t used in awhile.)

It seems rather innocuous, the little “like” button underneath a Facebook entry, a Youtube video, or a post on WordPress. I can see another one right now up in Stumbleupon bar above the page I’m working on. I’ve long since lost count of the number of discussion forums that make use of similar conventions. Let’s not even get into the whole reddit thing, okay! My point is that an awful lot of mass communication these days comes with the invitation to express our approval in terms of an upvote, like button, or some similar device. Ever greater portions of our news and entertainment now come with a prefabricated seal of approval, just waiting for us to click yea or nay, and thus make ourselves heard.

…in a really limited way.

But what does our little click of approval mean? What these buttons mean to us and what they might mean to the websites that host them isn’t always clear. Often, the significance seems pretty obvious. You liked what you read, listened to, watched, or otherwise consumed. But sometimes, there is a twist to the content, something that skews the meaning of your approval. If you are reading a news article about a political speech you like, I’ll bet you are happy to give your blessings to both the speech and the article with a single click of a button. But what about a well written piece about a political speech by that fart-for-brains bastard you can’t wait to vote against? Well, then the ‘like’ button only applies to the article itself, right? …or do you refrain from clicking the ‘like’ button at all in cases like that? We don’t have a button that helps us to distinguish content from style or subject matter from the simple decision to call our attention to it.

And I’m sure most of us are familiar with the dilemma posed by a friend describing on Facebook something awful they’ve just experienced. Suddenly the like button just isn’t quite the tiny gesture of personal support that it has been for the last hundred or so mind-numbing left clicks we’ve executed while watching bad TV or not-quite-reading the  memos at work. So, you sit there for a moment and think about it, before telling yourself you better actually write something this time. And since it’s significant and personal, you’re going to have to think about it and choose your words carefully. …dammit!

But perhaps there is a sob-story in this too

I have 5 minutes of time to kill, and I want to enjoy it by reading funny stories from my friends and thanking them for it with a simple click of a button. I’m even happy to cheer folks on when they tell me good things about their lives. But now one of my close friends has just experienced a major tragedy, and she snuck a note about it into this stream of otherwise happy-and-light fluff I am using for my entertainment. Now I feel obligated to say something meaningful, and I’m really not ready to get all emotional, and fuck I only have 2 minutes left before I have to do something anyway, and I have no idea what to say. Fuck!

Presumably this sort of Facebook entry would create a similar tragedy for anyone with enough heart to know just how frustrating that kind of moment can be. The social niceties of liketry can be very complex. We need a button that says; “I don’t really like what you’ve just described but I like you and want you to know that I support you in your struggles, …at least enough to press a button about it.”

On WordPress at least, hitting the “Like” button a little akin to saying “Hey baby!” It is often a way of telling someone you exist and inviting them back to your apartment. Whatever else the ‘like’ button means around here, it is also a potential means of hinting that someone should come visit your own blog, where of course you hope they will read and like your own material. …which is what one will likely presume when you see that they have hit the like button underneath your own article.

…unless it means that they just want you to come back and read their new post.

The possibilities of mutually re-enforced self-deception here are astounding! Sometimes I think it is entirely possible that nobody is reading anybody’s work anymore, online or otherwise, or even looking at the pictures. Could WordPress be a community of illiterate button-pushers, liking each other in one great big orgy of self-referential liketude? …with nary a word ever making its way into a single skull!

I can’t think about it anymore; that way lies madness!

I suppose the fact that giving gestures of approval may be a means of getting them back didn’t exactly begin with the internet, but sites like WordPress have certainly re-arranged the economics of liketry in new and interesting ways.

By ‘interesting’ I probably mean ‘just a little sickening.’ …yeah.

I recently got a bit of an object-lesson in what it can mean to ‘like’ something on Stumbleupon. You see, when I first started using that service, I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to set my standards for liking a webpage. Was it enough if I liked something a little? Or did I want to be a hard-sell and like only the very best of the very best? It really didn’t take long before I realized that there are real advantages to liking more pages (more followers being chief among them), so I loosened up a bit, but I still insist on somehow keeping a trace of sincerity to the whole thing. I don’t ‘like’ things that I don’t actually like.

Seriously.

For the first month or so I followed my usual approach of restricting approval to those things about which I could voice clear and unmitigated approval. I ‘liked’ only those things which I really did like, completely and unreservedly, from the bottom of my soul, …or at least my liver. I held back from approving many thoughtful articles on a range of interesting subjects because I had a problem with something in the third paragraph of this one or the specific language used in expressing a minor point in that one. Pictures on the other hand? Well, I found quite a few of them to be like-worthy, not the least of reasons being that I’m not a photographer. I wouldn’t know how to pick at them if I wanted to, …well not that much anyhow. The point is, that I liked a lot of pictures.

Of course the thing about Stumbleupon is that the site shows you more of what you like and less of what you don’t as you establish the difference by clicking those buttons. So, I suppose I should not have been surprised the that thoughtful articles on religion and politics answered the call of the stumble button with ever decreasing regularity, or that they had been replaced with images of kittens, sunsets, and street art. The more time I spent on Stumbleupon, the less useful information I got from it.

I figured this out when I heard a strange and stupid voice saying; “this site is useless for anything but lolcats!” The voice was of course my own. A moment later, I think I called myself an idiot.

At least I should have.

Because of course I had been telling the Stumbleupon site to supply me with frivolous content all along. Every time I hit the ‘like’ button I was effectively saying “more of these please.” And since I was only saying that when I looked at things about which I had few serious concerns, I was pretty much telling the software demons at Stumbleupon to keep it light and fluffy went they chose my content.

Once I figured this out, the remedy seemed rather obvious. If I wanted to see more interesting material, I was going to have to give a pass to the next pretty scene and (more to the point) swallow at least some of my reservations long enough to say ‘yes’ to a opinion piece or three. I made the adjustment, and today I am finding the material I get from Stumbleupon far more interesting than I did at the end of my first month on the site. I simply had to stop thinking of the ‘Like’ button as a sign of ultimate approval and start thinking of it as a sign of general interest, or even an outright request for more of the same sort of content.

Of course that wasn’t the end of my adjustments. I find that my likes page at Stumbleupon includes articles I really don’t agree with at all, but which I might want to read again, anyway, or to reference for purposes of one of my classes. Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I could use my Stumble account as a kind of caché for anything of interest to me in any way. So, the ‘like’ button on Stumbleupon no longer mean as that I actually approve the content; it means that I am interested in reading it again. Sometimes it means I dislike the content of an article enough to want to come back to it, …probably to pick a fight of some kind over the matter.

So, I guess I do ‘like’ something that I don’t like, which is a fact that I don’t like at all.

…I need a drink.

Lest you think this ramble is entirely about the trivialities of internet liketry, I should say that the whole Stumble incident has me rethinking my overall philosophy of likalism. yes, it is. I’ve always been reluctant to place my stamp of approval on most anything in life, and I can’t help thinking this business showed me something interesting about the mental landscape that produces this pattern. Perhaps, a little to prone to hold a flaw or two against the overall value of an otherwise interesting work. Would it be wiser to think of my approval less as a pass on the problems and more as a sign of interest?

Perhaps.

Then again, I’m not much sure if I like what I’ve just written. I mean what the Hell? Somewhere in here I touch on some really interesting questions (or so I thought) about how the net skews our sense of meaning and commodifies approval, …and then I end up with this quasi-self-help lesson. I hate self-help lessons! Seriously, how the Hell did I veer so far off the path on this one!?!

If I were y’all, I wouldn’t like this post.