The “Like” Button and Our Inability to Define Authenticity

(Source: The Guardian)

Edit: This post is now also published on The Big Smoke.

The goal of amassing Likes is the social media equivalent of planning a coincidental run-in with your ex (or whoever else you don’t care about but actually do): natural makeup, tousled waves, new outfit, sucked in gut, shaved legs, plucked eyebrows, perfume, etc. for nothing but a five-second interaction. You might immediately go home and put on sweatpants, but at least that person saw a version of you created on your terms.

I sit alone, and I sit with friends as we spend upwards of two hours picking out captions and filters, whitening our teeth and covering up blemishes, and aimlessly refreshing feeds, waiting for Likes.

Many moons ago, the 11th Like on Instagram rewarded the poster with a numerical signifier of Likes instead of a nullifying list of names, but that is no longer adequate. This was before widespread usage of the-Like-as-social-currency — when we used the Like as an indication of what we actually liked and not as a means of elevating people in the social media sphere in hopes that they will likewise elevate us when our time comes.

Gone are the days of not necessarily caring how many Likes a post received because the Like wasn’t viewed as a popularity metric but simply as a means of actual engagement. Enter the age of 100+ Likes.

I have no problem saying that I don’t have a large enough social circle to guarantee a 101st Like. (Though of the two social media platforms where the Like is central — Facebook and Instagram —only the latter has tunnel vision for accruing Likes. Facebook at least offers other features.) But when my post is sandwiched between two posts with 200+ Likes, I feel suffocated by invalidation.

Social media is no longer about sharing but self-branding, but we all tiptoe around this transition even as Facebook and Instagram (and Twitter if you prefer) curate our News Feeds based on, among many other things, posts with the most Likes.

In order to be seen, we now have to have already been seen. It’s just capitalism. Have money to make money. Have experience to get experience. Have Likes and followers to gain Likes and followers.

If this wasn’t the case, nobody would’ve been so freaked out by the conceivable reality of the Black Mirror episode, “Nosedive,” in which every interaction with friends and strangers alike is rated, and opportunities appear and disappear based on a person’s rating and consequent social status. Image dictates the characters’ realities and influences their behavior in an extreme but not implausible way.

Our friends and followers dispense Likes as an act that lends itself to an expectation of reciprocity to the point of feeling slightly betrayed by people whose posts we Liked but who don’t Like our posts in return.

Likes are given or withheld as a judgment call on how much social recognition someone “deserves,” especially if that person is a near-stranger — a mutual friend of a mutual friend. “Oh, this person already has 200 Likes. That’s enough. I don’t have to Like it too.”

A capitalist mentality turns everything into a competition, and because of Facebook and Instagram’s relatively new algorithms for curating feeds, social media is quickly becoming a casualty in this quantity-as-quality game.

I’m not over here mourning the loss of a “genuine” self or anything like that. I don’t care about losing “real life” experiences because we view them through phones. That doesn’t bother me, and sometimes I see the lamentation of the loss of “true” experience as a longing for something that never existed. Social media simply takes a carefully edited self for the purpose of social acceptance and puts it in front of a larger audience.

There are more people to be accepted or rejected by, but the underlying desire to fit-in isn’t new. The tendency to exaggerate the quality of an experience isn’t new. Sure, we might take more pictures, but all those images of seas of people holding up their iPhones at concerts don’t bother me. I see that as pseudo-profound social commentary generated by a fundamental lack of understanding between people who grew up with phones and people who grew up without them.

All these social media cleanses and “going off the grid” fads are just new ways to search for meaning, and they are made possible by technology itself. Humans have always been searching for a way to get in-touch with an intrinsic sense of purpose — to connect to the world in a “deeper,” “more meaningful” way.

Thoreau went to Walden, but that didn’t make him any less of an ass, living deliberately as made possible by his ability to reenter society whenever he wanted because of his wealth and status. He wasn’t really roughing it in the wilderness. “Going off the grid” is a zero-risk way to “genuinely experience life” because we know we can easily get back in it if need be (and need will be).

In fact, that’s kind of the point — like doing drugs again after a long period of sobriety. The high is higher. (I’m not endorsing that, but whatever.) Social media is just part of the zeitgeist now, sorry.

My points are the vigilante quality of Like distribution and the obsession with quantification it begets. We pass judgment reflexively on pictures, thoughts, articles, the validity of news, viral videos, crime filmed by bystanders, recipes, clickbait, and so on. The Like button is right there. No need to think.

The extreme is rewarded: extreme beauty, extreme deformity, extreme humor, extreme news, extreme opinions, extreme adventure, extreme violence, extreme tragedy, extreme posing, extreme wealth, extreme clothes, extreme health, extreme vice, extreme virtue. But of course, something’s worthiness of a Like is subject to the collective and prevailing conception of these so-called extremities.

Also factored into the equation are the potential for the aforementioned reciprocal Like and the popularity a post has already garnered and whether we want to contribute to it. All of these measurements happen in less than a second, but there is evidence for it.

Again, I’m not advocating for authenticity.

A filter is no more inauthentic than a corset or a powdered wig or tattoos, but none of those things are negative per se. We’ve always curated versions of ourselves to present to the public. Only the nature of this presentation has changed as we have different norms and different tools available to us.

We even conduct and present ourselves differently based on the platform. Tumblr and Twitter lend themselves to pithiness and wittiness — the ability to convey a truism in 140 characters or a meme. They are about a carefully curated stream of consciousness or pseudo-sincerity. Instagram is about aestheticism. LinkedIn is about professionalism. YouTube is about the potential to be viral. Facebook is a strange combination of everything plus amusing yet terrifying political opinions.

We unconsciously switch modes based on the internalized parameters of the platform, and naysayers tell us this is evidence of artificiality; however, that operates under the assumption that we can define what constitutes an authentic presentation of the self. If we exercise any restraint at all, isn’t that artificial? The only place we are really “ourselves” is probably alone in our rooms.

There is a desensitization to extremity, however, as the tools for curation become more advanced and target the previously-ignored minutiae of a post. Paradoxically, as the rules for deservingness of a Like become more stringent, the more “anything goes” becomes the name of the game, especially in regards to filming violent crimes, conspiracies masked as truth, and adventure (deadly selfies, anyone?).

I guess the “rules” appear more stringent because what’s considered “extreme” is one-upped constantly. The extreme perfection that photo-editing apps allow photographic laypeople to achieve ups the ante for beauty and ups the pressure for each post. We have to out-wit, out-beautiful, and out-smart people at all times, or at least, that’s what we feel like we have to do.

Initially, the platforms themselves didn’t create this pressure. The way we used them did, but this was amplified by the algorithms that determine what gets the most views on a News Feed. Those algorithms, however, were supposedly created to increase the value of individualized user experience, but they only feed into our desire to quantify said value — our desire to see that glowing red and white number that shows how many people saw us, even if what they saw wasn’t really us.

The Like is at once careless and indicative of how much people care about us. We Like things with little thought, only acting on unconscious internalizations of what a Like “means” and of course, the accessible ubiquity of the Like. People on the receiving end of a Like deem it as validating even when they know they hand out Likes as carelessly as the people who handed out Likes to them. Then, we collectively look at what posts got the most Likes and think, “Wow, how did they do that?”

It creates a subtle social hierarchy — which person has the most Likes on a photo — that is simultaneously absurd — a viral video of a cat mashing keys on an electronic keyboard.

The Like upends the notion of what should and shouldn’t be popular, yet it also reinforces it, which is why I find “Nosedive” and similar speculative future social media obsessions so distressing but not in a catastrophizing way and not in a fear-of-moral-relativity way.

It’s the idea of taking the mentality of the Like into the “real” world, de-contextualizing moments and summing up people in realtime (Ugh, Bill Maher has ruined that word for me.) based on that.

If someone could rate me based on the time I picked a wedgie in public or accidentally bumped into them or muttered for them to hurry the fuck up while I was hungover and in line for a bagel, well, that wouldn’t be good. Maybe it’d be more “authentic,” but it still wouldn’t be the whole picture. With the extreme accessibility of the Like, maybe there’s some beauty to inauthenticity.

Then again, with the pressure to convince people that what we put on social media is the “real” us even when we all know it isn’t — just look at all these “this is the real me” body positivity Instagram posts — leads to an added pressure to be “real.” If we have to simultaneously be fake and authentic on social media even when we know neither is the whole story, maybe the Like is one step closer than we thought to escaping the bubble of our virtual reality.

Maybe I’m just paranoid. Or maybe it’s time to pull a “Silicon Valley tech bro” and go on a social media cleanse and head to Burning Man. Only time will tell.