By NEIL STRAUSS
If you happen to be reading this article online, you’ll notice that right above it, there is a button labeled “like.” Please stop reading and click on “like” right now.
Thank you. I feel much better. It’s good to be liked.
Don’t forget to comment on, tweet, blog about and StumbleUpon this article. And be sure to “+1” it if you’re on the newly launched Google+ social network. In fact, if you don’t want to read the rest of this article, at least stay on the page for a few minutes before clicking elsewhere. That way, it will appear to the site analytics as if you’ve read the whole thing.
Once, there was something called a point of view. And, after much strife and conflict, it eventually became a commonly held idea in some parts of the world that people were entitled to their own points of view.
Unfortunately, this idea is becoming an anachronism. When the Internet first came into public use, it was hailed as a liberation from conformity, a floating world ruled by passion, creativity, innovation and freedom of information. When it was hijacked first by advertising and then by commerce, it seemed like it had been fully co-opted and brought into line with human greed and ambition.
But there was one other element of human nature that the Internet still needed to conquer: the need to belong. The “like” button began on the website FriendFeed in 2007, appeared on Facebook in 2009, began spreading everywhere from YouTube to Amazon to most major news sites last year, and has now been officially embraced by Google as the agreeable, supportive and more status-conscious “+1.” As a result, we can now search not just for information, merchandise and kitten videos on the Internet, but for approval.
You ‘like’ me! Even rock stars agonize over their Facebook and Twitter stats.
Just as stand-up comedians are trained to be funny by observing which of their lines and expressions are greeted with laughter, so too are our thoughts online molded to conform to popular opinion by these buttons. A status update that is met with no likes (or a clever tweet that isn’t retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.
Conversely, when we’re looking at someone else’s content—whether a video or a news story—we are able to see first how many people liked it and, often, whether our friends liked it. And so we are encouraged not to form our own opinion but to look to others for cues on how to feel.
“Like” culture is antithetical to the concept of self-esteem, which a healthy individual should be developing from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Instead, we are shaped by our stats, which include not just “likes” but the number of comments generated in response to what we write and the number of friends or followers we have. I’ve seen rock stars agonize over the fact that another artist has far more Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers than they do.
Because it’s so easy to medicate our need for self-worth by pandering to win followers, “likes” and view counts, social media have become the métier of choice for many people who might otherwise channel that energy into books, music or art—or even into their own Web ventures.
The same is true of the productivity of already established writers and artists. I was recently on a radio show with an author who, the interviewer said, had tweeted, on average, every 20 minutes for the past two years. Yet, despite all the time and effort spent amassing and catering to followers, as soon as a social network falls out of use, like MySpace, all that work collapses like a castle built of sand.
The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm presciently wrote over 60 years ago that man has “constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine he built…. The more powerful and gigantic the forces are which he unleashes, the more powerless he feels himself as a human being. He is owned by his creations, and has lost ownership of himself.”
So let’s rise up against the tyranny of the “like” button. Share what makes you different from everyone else, not what makes you exactly the same. Write about what’s important to you, not what you think everyone else wants to hear. Form your own opinions of something you’re reading, rather than looking at the feedback for cues about what to think. And, unless you truly believe that microblogging is your art form, don’t waste your time in pursuit of a quick fix of self-esteem and start focusing on your true passions.
And please, despite what I said earlier, do not +1, tweet, StumbleUpon, like or comment on this article. You’ll only be making it worse.
—Mr. Strauss is the author of seven best-selling books. His latest book is “Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys Into Fame and Madness.”