The Cynicism of Liking

This essay reflects on the efficacy of critique as a form of digital media literacy in the era of “liking.” We could also say “hearting,” “favoriting,” “sharing,” “recommending,” or “retweeting,” depending on the social media platform. Facebook and Google describe these practices as “connecting,” and in some ways, that designation is accurate. Yet social media platforms are also powerful economic forces. One useful way to conceptualize the political economy of social media is to see it through the lens of an emerging system called “platform capitalism.” Platforms are digital infrastructures that mediate interactions among multiple actors. Since the advent of so-called Web 2.0, platforms have granted “free” access to their services in exchange for the right to record, store, analyze, and monetize the data generated by user interactions.

Generation Like (2014), an American documentary film that I teach in my seminars on social media and American culture, provides a case study of the relationships between platform capitalism and American teenagers — the eponymous Generation Like. The documentary was written by Douglas Rushkoff, an important American critic of digital culture and society, and is free to view on the PBS Frontline website.

As investigative journalism, Generation Like treats its subject matter as something that is generally poorly or falsely understood, perhaps even concealed from public knowledge. In other words, the documentary sees its mission as critical. While critique has a long and complex philosophical heritage, I understand it to entail an intellectual process by which truth comes to light through the demystification, unmasking, and debunking of false appearances. For example, Generation Like begins by showing Rushkoff in discussion with parents about digital media. He advises parents to stop focusing on the “technology itself” and to start thinking more about “what’s behind technology.” This conceptual maneuver is emblematic of critique. Critical thinking requires that we examine background actions and contexts. In contrast, superficial thinking takes background and context for granted, thus producing a distorted image of its object as a “thing in itself.” “What are companies doing to our kids through technology,” Rushkoff asks, “and how can they, and we, be made more aware?” The question calls for a critical approach to social media that looks behind the false appearance of“technology itself” in order to foreground the economic conditions in which social media platforms operate.

While I’m committed to the critical approach, lately I have found myself pondering a disturbing idea: Generation Like is cynically resistant to critique.

I Like, Therefore I Am

Some of the unique traits of Generation Like can be better appreciated by contrasting today’s teens to a previous generation of consumers. In another Frontline documentary, The Merchants of Cool (2001), Rushkoff profiles the so-called cool hunter. Like ethnologists, cool hunters try to catch a commercially lucrative style in its nascent stage by studying cool kids in their “native habitats.” Similarly, the leading advertising platforms, Facebook and Google, facilitate the identification of commercially-valuable trends in user data. But social media have changed the rules of cool hunting. Teens no longer need to be hunted; they “hunt” themselves. As Rushkoff puts it, teens on social media “tell the world what they think is cool.”

For this reason, it might seem that teens are in control of the platforms, which appear to be nothing but instruments to communicate their interests. As the American media theorist Jodi Dean points out, the dominant rhetoric of Web 2.0 draws on the principles of participatory democracy. Online, it seems, liking provides everyone with an equal voice and “vote.”

“Likes, follows, friends, retweets — they’re the social currency of this generation, Generation Like. The more likes you have, the better you feel.” — Douglas Rushkoff

In another scene, Rushkoff talks to a group of teens who are updating their Facebook profiles. As the teens talk about the likes that these pictures may generate, it becomes clear that they understand likes as a form of self-fashioning. “For kids today,” Rushkoff explains, “you are what you like.” Rushkoff compares the way members of Generation Like build their identities to his own teenage self-fashioning through a T-shirt or a poster on his wall. Does it follow, then, that platform capitalism is simply providing kids with a new way to do something that they’ve always done, namely, to express their identities by communicating their likes?

No. When a kid wears a T-shirt of, say, his favorite pop singer, this is drastically different from liking that pop singer on social media. T-shirts don’t produce a data trail that allows interested actors to surveille their social activity. Moreover, kids haven’t always used pop music, T-shirts, and posters to fashion their identities. These become powerful tools for self-presentation within consumer societies.

Once we recognize the historicity of consumption-based identity, the absurdity of the expression “you are what you like” should be clear. I like Coke more than Pepsi, but why should I see this as a revelation of who I am? Instead, my identity is rooted in my family ties and friendships, my ideals and principles, my religious beliefs, and my profession. I don’t simply “like” these things. I don’t “like” Bernie Sanders, I think his ideas are better than other politicians’ ideas. I don’t “like” God, I believe in God. I don’t “like” being a professor, I am a professor (which is why I remain one even when I sometimes get frustrated and don’t like it). For the consumer, “like” primarily means “I’m inclined to buy.” As we come to believe that we are what we like, we understand ourselves as nothing but a bundle of consumer desires.

Is this reduction possible because Generation Like does not understand the ways that platforms surveille and monetize their likes? Do some American teens experience likes as material for self-fashioning because their economic context is hidden, and thus requires critique to bring it to conscious awareness?

In a key sequence in Generation Like, Rushkoff tries to unmask the political economy of platform capitalism in classically critical fashion. He interviews Oliver Luckett, the head of a company that manages the social media profile of Ian Somerhalder, the star of the American TV show Vampire Diaries. Rushkoff asks to see how Luckett monetizes the likes of Somerhalder’s social media followers, and Luckett obliges by showing Rushkoff his laptop screen. Luckett’s software correlates the percentage of people who like a product with the people who like Somerhalder. As we see on Luckett’s laptop, 6.7% of people who like Somerhalder also like Origins health and beauty products. If Somerhalder likes Origins, and I like Somerhalder and Origins, then my social media contacts might see an advertisement for Origins on Facebook with a “double endorsement” from Somerhalder and me, regardless of whether I want to help sell the Origins product to my friends. That’s platform capitalism. Whereas the teens in Generation Like talk about likes as forms of self-expression and “empowerment,” from the perspective of platform capitalism, they are nothing but commercial probabilities.

Of course, brands do not directly address consumers as numbers. Brands want trust; they want social media users to recognize “no difference between the brand and your friend,” to quote a marketer who is featured in Generation Like. In other words, using teens’ likes to market to other teens is a way of turning feelings about brands and products into a relationship that is analogous to friendship. This is a textbook definition of what critical theory calls “fetishism”: the relations among people are expressed as relations among things.

Selling Out

Luckett has no qualms about showing how his software monetizes likes because he thinks that platform capitalism is “transparent.” In Luckett’s view, everyone understands the business of likes and freely consents to its rules. Rushkoff responds to this claim with critical skepticism: “Obvious and transparent, or simply invisible?” Rushkoff thinks platform capitalism is opaque, not transparent. On the one hand, he’s obviously right. Many users simply do not comprehend the myriad ways that social media platforms collect, analyze, and profit from their data. The leading platforms intentionally set their defaults to enable maximum data collection and wager that most users will not change them, due either to ignorance or complacency.

On the other hand, one of the main “characters” in the documentary, Tyler Oakley, appears to be a paradigm case of transparency. On YouTube, where he is a mini-celebrity with nearly 8 million followers, Oakley talks about what he likes — food, fashion, music, etc. He is, in a sense, a professional liker.

Oakley models what I would call a “postcritical” identity — a self whose desires appear perfectly unified with the interests of branders. Everyone knows that Oakley is supported by numerous corporate sponsors, but this does not diminish his status. Critique slides off Oakley because it can find nothing to reveal about him, no hidden economic context to unmask. He really is what he likes; he really is a bundle of consumer preferences.

Rushkoff observes that his generation would have accused Oakley of “selling out.” Astonishingly, when Rushkoff asks teens to define selling out, they are nonplussed. Either they react to the phrase as if it were a foreign language, or they define it as its opposite. For example, one teen speculates that a “sell out” is a person who is unsuccessful, a “nobody.” In fact, a person sells out in order to avoid being a nobody: the sell out is so fixated on success that he will abandon his commitments and ideals for money and status. The teens’ confusion suggests that Oakley cannot be critically unmasked as a sell out because Generation Like sees no conflict between his cooperation with powerful economic agents, on the one hand, and his intellectual and creative integrity, on the other. They see Oakley’s online celebrity and monetary success as proof of his importance, whereas a critical perspective would insist that he has been modestly rewarded for playing a game whose rules he didn’t make.

Conclusion

A s a form of digital media literacy, critique aims to expose the surveillance, money, and consumerism behind social media. But the critical perspective presumes that platforms need to hide these economic facts from users, and that once users find out about them, they will become more skeptical about the allegedly participatory nature of Web 2.0. Both assumptions are questionable, unfortunately. Platforms can perhaps afford to be transparent about their branding of social interaction because many users have already adopted consumer identities and have a weak sense of moral and political opposition to powerful economic actors, to whom they instead turn for validation.

Generation Like doesn’t answer the questions it raises about the efficacy of critique, and neither can I. I will end, though, with a hypothesis: behind the acceptance of platform capitalism lies what the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk once called “cynical reason.” What looks like enthusiasm for the current form of social media is actually a deeply ingrained cynicism about the prospects for alternatives. To teach digital media literacy effectively, then, we need to go beyond the critique of platform capitalism by inspiring students to imagine that the future of social media can be different from the present — that there are other, better ways to organize online sociality than by gifting our data to Facebook and Google. Social media without critique is naïve, but critique without utopian imagination is blind.