Like It or NotNov 4, 2010 In Web Culture By Nishant Kothary
Hidden neatly beneath the seemingly superficial surface of the “like” button are some peculiar insights about humanity. And deeper below that—our next collective challenge
Many of us wouldn’t be caught dead listening to John Mayer’s music. There isn’t a shortage of reasons we supply for our scorn, but one that usually the tops the list is “Well, he’s a douchebag.” The charade of reasoning always traverses a similar path: “Oh, Mayer is such a talentless hack. He can barely play guitar. And, all those tattoos? What, they’re supposed to fool us into believing he’s the real thing? A complete poser, and yeah, I could care less for his music.” Similar is the public opinion about “arrogant” director M. Night Shyamalan, “pedophile” actor/director Woody Allen or “adulterer” ex-president William Clinton.
We like to think that what we like or dislike has been passed through our own internal, objective merit test. But the reality is that most of our preferences, especially the publicly disclosed ones, meander through completely subjective paths,often even unbeknownst to us,before they finally land in a place fairly disconnected from the aesthetics of the object itself.
Merit is but one very small criterion we use in determining what we endorse or reject; character, personality and our own agendas have always ranked much higher. Politics is a classic case in point—charisma and personality, not public policy-making experience and skills, win elections. It’s no coincidence that image consultancy is a flourishing business in politics.
Now bring Facebook or Twitter into this picture, and you’ve got the ultimate behavioral experiment playing out every day. The “like” button (or a retweet) is the new black—everyone wants one and Facebook has made it possible to attach one to just about anything leave your Weimaraner’s snout. And the interaction model of the like button is so intuitive that even my mother, who’s hardly familiar with the online subculture, was able to “like” a post by my wife announcing that our dog made a short appearance on the local news.
If you think about it, “liking” something isn’t so different from getting a tattoo in an exposed region of the body—it’s a complex signaling mechanism that, among other things, influences how your social network perceives you. We all do this—not necessarily via tattoos—and it’s perfectly natural. But signaling something about yourself is entirely different than posing as a credible critic of a certain type of music or movie genre. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell one from the other. Therefore, today we’re all expert critics.
It’s tempting to blame this seemingly apocalyptic and frightening situation on, as Josh cleverly dubs it, “the human centipede that is social networking”. But before we get carried away, let’s consider for a second that none of this is apocalyptic or frightening—the only thing that’s changed is the lifespan of approval/disapproval. While in the past we only caught a fleeting glance of someone’s bias—may it be a hipster pimping a new indie band as one destined to save our generation from mindless music or a critic heralding the next big blockbuster—today we can hit rewind on our DVR or log in to a website to see bias at that very moment it happens.
Like most things, there is a silver lining to all of this. We’ve shifted paradigms. The world now exists in snapshots where we are able to see the outcome as well as the path that lead to it. Essentially, we get to rewrite history, at least for ourselves. Preposterous as this may sound, remember that most history is just one interpretation of a situation anyway, so having a readily available archive to reinterpret it is probably a good thing.
It seems as if our calling as a society is to be more critical consumers of, well, criticism. This new, connected, transparent existence may well overwhelm us to death, but it is also precisely what may finally transcend us to the next frontier—for it demands that we all become quicker, smarter and more balanced thinkers. Remember this the next time you read something on Yelp, Amazon or Rotten Tomatoes. Picture the reviewer. Imagine her context. Question her motives.
And certainly don’t refrain from discarding her verdict.
p.s. If you liked this, then you may like what I write at rainypixels.com.