To like or to dislike, that is the question

From The Irish Times, September 19th, 2015

Since its introduction in 2009, Facebook’s “like” button has become a ubiquitous unit of online expression. However, its limitations were always obvious: it’s far too reductive even as a swift mode of interaction.

One example I can recall occurred earlier this year when a good friend wrote a deeply affecting Facebook post about his devastation at the sudden death of a colleague.

He expressly asked people not to like it, but inevitably, the post received about a dozen likes, thoughtless little actions that presumably meant well but which in some small way exacerbated my friend’s grief. These feelings were too real, the emotions too raw, for a reaction as trite as a like.

Those limitations were acknowledged this week when founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was experimenting with a “Dislike” button and other variations.

“I think people have asked about the dislike button for many years,” Zuckerberg said at a meeting with staff. “What they really want is the ability to express empathy. Not every moment is a good moment . . . your friends want to be able to express that they understand and relate to you, so I do think it’s important to give people more options than just like as a quick way to emote.”

The announcement generated a fair degree of alarm: Facebook has a rather inglorious habit of infuriating users with its tinkering.

One concern was whether the move will add to the online world’s already deep well of negativity; many fear that a dislike button would be a baton in the hand of the bullies, a tool of snide derision rather than an expression of empathy.

A larger concern, however, is how the like button and its imminent variations can actually limit our interactions; in a technical sense, our ability to communicate is limited only by our vocabulary, but when we transpose language, with its rich variety, for a series of buttons crudely approximating feelings, we constrain that communication in very real ways.

Obviously, the like button is not a replacement for language, but the rise of that blue “thumbs up” logo demonstrated a widespread desire to abbreviate our communications in the digital domain, “a quick way to emote”, as Zuckerberg put it. As such, there’s an undeniable vapidity to the like button, in that it encapsulates a shallowness to our online relationships that is potentially quite corrosive.

Particularly for the millennial generation of 20-somethings that has grown up interacting with their peers on Facebook, the like button might ultimately be seen less as a signature mode of interaction and more as a signifier of superficiality.

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