The Meaning Of Life Without The ‘Like’ Button
By Caitlin Donohue
What would you post to Facebook if you didn’t care about the number of likes it received?
Recently, I attempted to answer this downright existential question when I made the radical decision to extricate my life from the metrics of Facebook. The depth of my social media network — filled with family members, childhood friends, fans, fellow writers, people I know through nightlife, and people who know me through my writing about marijuana, sex, politics, and reggaeton — was beginning to make me feel overwhelmed and, well, a little terrified.
I started to overthink many of the links and photos I shared, my finger hovering anxiously over the “post” button. I died a little when a status update didn’t hit with the people I wanted it to, making me feel like I wasn’t explaining myself, or worse yet, that no one cared what I had to say. Had I used the right tone, language even, when announcing my web magazine’s upcoming issue release party? Why did so few people like the post?
The more I thought about all those eyes, the less I knew what to do in front of them.
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Somewhere in this miasma, I came across the Facebook Demetricator. Disruptive programmer and artist Benjamin Grosser created the free software, which purges your Facebook desktop of the amount of likes a post has received. Also erased are share and comment counts–even the timestamp that usually tells users, with decreasing exactitude, the moment in which an item was posted. (Instead of “posted seven hours ago,” you see “posted recently,” or in the case of posts that are more than three days old, “posted a while ago.”)
In a paper presenting his application, Grosser says these omnipresent digits locate Facebook users within a “form of self-induced audit . . . where the many watch the metrics of the many . . . to create the potential of being audited all the time.” He calls this grid of my nightmares the graphopticon. Said Grosser:
“The graphopticon wants us to watch each other, to induce a need to excel quantitatively in the face of our friends. At the same time the metrics also create a more general state of anxiety, as we wait for more ‘likes,’ as we look for more quantitative evidence of acknowledgement from others, and as everything gets old right before our eyes. We are left with a need to escape that anxiety, and the easy way out is the metric more.”
I honestly hadn’t been framing my own anxiety in number form, but I thought trying the Demetricator couldn’t hurt my tenuous hold on online sanity. I finally downloaded the software the morning after I decided to delete all the photos I’d posted for Halloween because they were cute, but just not getting enough likes. After I erased them, I came to the horrifying realization that this made me look horribly crazy and/or rude to the people I’d tagged in them. [Official apologies, Sandra and Thania.] In this moment of angst, I admitted I had a problem.
And so, I downloaded the Demetricator, turning this:
The process of my search for a better self had begun.
Facebook has never denied that it wants to fuck with our emotions.
“We care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” said Adam Kramer, Facebook researcher. He was responding to allegations that his team had demonstrated unethical behavior this summer in an experiment that manipulated 689,003 users’ newsfeeds to see if it would affect the tenor of the content they posted (it did). Other studies have pointed to an increase in happiness when regular users take a Facebook hiatus.
At first, I didn’t personally see much of an emotional difference when I deactivated the numbers with the Demetricator. It’s not an ironclad barrier between you and the data — hover your mouse over the part of a post that says “Shay Burke, Pepe Romero and ____ others like this,” and the usual roll call of names appears. If your graphopticon anxiety stems from other people viewing your meager stats, the Demetricator requires some suspension of belief. You have to work with the software; it can’t do it all for you.
Grosser’s conjecture that numbers serve to create a sense of urgency, though, has ultimately been proven correct. Without the constant time reminders, it’s easier to focus on content for (gasp!) its own merits. I have no scientist to quantify this, but I think that over the course of the last couple weeks, using the Demetricator has made me check out links to more long-reads on Facebook. Without the endless popularity contest of the metrics, it’s easier to pay attention to the subtle stuff that isn’t clickbait.
It also became apparent after a few days with the Demetricator that my life continued unharmed when I couldn’t see the like counts on other peoples’ profile photos. Left to my own devices, I do a good enough job comparing my life to others’; I don’t need a thousand tiny numbers to abet me. And I like the floating feeling that the erasure of the timestamp has lent to my newsfeed; Grosser’s theory that these yardsticks exist as tools of social control have seemed all the more accurate.
This is not Grosser’s only foray into societal manipulations — and his target is not always the individual’s behavior. A 2013 creation called Scare Mail embeds a paragraph of non-sequiturs that trigger NSA alerts. If everyone used Scare Mail, it would jam the systems that provide indiscriminate surveillance of the people of the United States. Grosser reports that few people have downloaded the software — apparently no one is really down to have the NSA know their business. Other Grosser creations include software that automatically inflates notification numbers on your Facebook interface, and a scrambler that serves to mess up Google’s attempt to collect data on your preferences by searching for random words.
As for my own experiment, after two weeks of using the Demetricator, I can report that despite some changes in my behavior, I still have a social media problem. I posted “Facebook makes me hella nervous” while I wrote this piece and stifled the urge to delete it for seven minutes, unsure how people would respond. Deleting comments from my feed hasn’t erased my fundamental need to use Facebook for self-validation, and I still have no idea what I would post on social media if I actually, truly didn’t care about likes — this seems like an activity for a world that is far away and nearly impossible to locate.
Thanks to Grosser’s software manipulations, what I do realize is that my Facebook neurosis is forgivable. Facebook has been designed, after all, to make us feel judged, and to make us judged. This epiphany is a start on the road to recovery: my social media neurosis is the result of corporate design, not personal failing.