The mess the ‘like’ has given us

Even Williams is right: the internet has become shit. We have only the ‘like,’ and ourselves, to blame.

In a recent, decadently long-form profile from The Atlantic on Ev Williams and the apparent good intentions of Medium, the Silicon Valley CEO describes the internet circa 2016 as “shit.” He’s referring to a certain slice of the internet, one that’s been growing for some time and which he believes will be the internet’s inevitable destiny. The highly consolidated, ad-saturated, ROI-optimizing internet of closed off content platforms like Facebook, the behemoth just about every online publisher (this site included) relies upon in order to get their work discovered and shared.

Having co-created first Blogger and then Twitter before Medium, William’s argument has emerged from having lived through cycles of growth at multiple internet communications platforms. He argues that the big platforms are calibrated against the good stuff of the internet — the genius, the revelatory, the creative, the eclectic — and that the minds hoping to add genuine value to public discourse cannot thrive in an ecosystem that rewards click-baiting and trend-chasing.

You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t noticed the internet’s slow slide into shittiness.

Probably you were too busy taking selfies and sending snaps, since most of us come to the internet first and foremost to connect with friends and family. In this social media dynamic, news, art and entertainment are just a natural byproduct of those interpersonal online conversations. And somewhere along the line, the feeds on which we rely became clogged with headlines too jaw-dropping to resist, viral videos too crass not to play, and listicles too relatable to ignore. Maybe you didn’t notice because you just slowly started tuning out. I wouldn’t blame you.

But Even Williams is right about how shitty the internet has become, and about the macro forces that have converged to permit the shitty internet’s rise. But the profile overlooks one of the tiniest, most unassuming perpetrators that has made the internet so damn exhausting these days: the ‘like.’

“What’s wrong with the like?” You may ask.

After all, it seems like such a harmless, positive reaction to a given stimulus. In a way, it validates our time consuming stuff online — it lets us feel like any given unit of data processed was so done by a unique individual human, who can make a mark that says “Yes. This thing.”

It is a form of affirmation, sure. But it’s a terrible one. “Liking” something is not a reason-based judgement of value, only an admission of our knee-jerk reaction. Humans like a lot of stuff — sugar, salt, alcohol, and a whole bunch else — that, if not taken in moderation, would kill us. Just because we like something, doesn’t make it good for us.

And now, the internet is shit because it runs on likes. The like is the shitty internet’s life-giving sustenance, the blood leeched by the tyrannical vampire of virality. Decision-making algorithms and the profit-hunters gaming them reward likes, spread likes, and rake in money off likes. Likes can be cheap. offensive. nauseating. Doesn’t matter, so long as we keep tapping and scrolling like dopamine-addled slot-machine addicts. In the vacuous glitz of the shitty internet casino, the “like” is king, and it determines what stuff — what articles, videos, art and ideas — we get exposed to in the hours we spend online.

The content of the Internet isn’t all shit, of course.

In fact one could easily argue that there’s as much cool stuff on the internet as there ever has been, if not more. But our collective attention is increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer platforms. And those platforms, scientifically engineered to sell you (specifically, you!) other stuff with all the force and accuracy of a cruise missile, calibrate what they show us all in a bid to maximize our time spent. Once your eyes see the internet for what it is, in all its mind-rotting diversion and shameless self-identifying circle-jerking, it can never be unseen. Somewhere along the line the quirky, colorful thing with the power to change the world starts to feel like a lost dream, killed by such innocent-looking symbols as the thumbs up and the heart.

The like may seem benign, but consider the possibilities of an internet that ran on something better than the hopeless fallibility of our individual first reactions. A value judgement that asks not “how relatable do I find this thing,” but rather “how worthy of sharing with my followers and friends?”

That’s what Evan Williams’ Medium has in mind in building a refuge against the shitty internet, a Noah’s Ark for the peak-content deluge, a platform devoid of likes, offering only “recommend.”

“Recommend.”

I.e. “This is worth your time.” “This will make you think! This will make you a better human being!” Imagine an internet that runs as voraciously on the recommend as our current internet does on the like. With all that edification and noise-cancelling, we could be solving climate change by Tuesday. This time next summer we might be dipping into our universal basic income accounts to sip mojitos and cap off our 28-hour work weeks. We’d need a Nobel prize ceremony every quarter to keep up with the pace of progress.

Ok, maybe that’s a little optimistic. But if we’re ever going to get close to that dream — to achieve even a little of it, we need to start thinking differently about how we interact with the shit clogging our streams every day.

A platform like Medium my help (even though Medium itself seems to be hedging bets with the heart icon). But we’re all collectively responsible as well for the level of public discourse we permit and perpetuate online. The like, and the click-bait it proliferates, is only as shitty as the person’s judgement who’s behind the click.