Why You Shouldn’t Take Likes As Seriously As You Do

I don’t know many people who don’t check their phone every few minutes. What I do know though is that people can get really sensitive about this — either high and mighty about other people’s overuse, or quietly terrified when they’re the only one not looking at their phone. There’s this panic of being tested on the ability to remain calm when you sense that everyone around you is spending their moment better than you are.

The anxious, pathological relationship we have with social media and our phones can be seen as positive. It might mean we care about being present in the thoughts and days of other people. It isn’t angst or obsession — it’s a longing to belong, to interact and to see ourselves as connected to more than our day, than our thoughts and commentary.

But we do trade our presence to connect with other people’s through a screen, standing still and staring blank somewhere.

As an exercise in thought, visualize yourself reaching for your phone, holding it in your hand and waking up the screen. You see the clock, your background and — you hope — a message or a notification. This is just what you wanted, isn’t it? Someone looked at something of yours and reacted to it. And now you know. The search for Likes is now complete.

When we see gleaming notifications, it feels like we’re interacting, that the people behind the addictive orbs really saw us and care, that they look for us and love us. They make it worth it sometimes.

Drawn down to our screens, we neglect the rooms we’re in, looking for Likes from elsewhere. This tells those around us that we can find better connection elsewhere. We live in our established lives rather than those that might become.

We look at our phones like a child beholds a toy with an LCD display: this is who cares about me this much, it says. But it’s a machine, and we confuse its affection for that of a real person. Likes are half-second efforts made by someone else who also neglected the room they were in. Further, aLike can mean anything from “you must be having so much fun” or “this picture is beautiful” to “I affirm your decisions, treasure our friendship and am so glad I’ve retained your presence in my social media feeds all these years.”

A Like could have nothing to do with you. A Like could be political. A Like could be an ironic, smug confirmation from a place of fear and shame. A Like could be a fat-fingered mistake. We don’t know. We don’t investigate the Likes we get. They’re whatever we need them to be right now. But we don’t ask — we just assume we understand their intent. We don’t speak, we nod. The Like as one-second acknowledgment of human attention is valuable, but the seconds have to add up.

Those with heads in phones are hedging their bets, looking around to be sure they aren’t missing a better conversation. The people around them aren’t enough, or aren’t easy enough.

The best parts of life happen in the space between two people. It’s up to us to make that space sacred ground.