Are we becoming slaves to the “like” button?

Are we becoming slaves to the “like” button, the retweet and the thumbs up — and now the Google+ “plus one” button? In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, writer Neil Strauss argues that we are, and that all of this implicit and explicit voting that takes place in social networks is encouraging a kind of vicious conformity. We no longer reveal our true selves online, he says, because so many of us are obsessed with judging our conduct based on whether it is approved by our friends, followers or social graph. But is that true? And if so, is it social networking’s fault?

Strauss argues that widespread use of social-networking features such as the “like” button, the retweet and the +1 button that is part of the new Google+ are effectively training us to only respond to things that have become popular — and to govern our own behavior so that it gets more likes and retweets, which he says effectively suppresses any unusual or controversial opinion in favor of the mainstream or predictable.

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.

A real-time version of high school

The result of all this, Strauss says, is that “we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.” To the Wall Street Journal writer, the Internet used to be a “liberation from conformity” that was eventually hijacked by advertising and commerce, and has now been turned into a giant, real-time version of high school, in which we all seek approval by tailoring our behavior and the way we look to the preconceptions of the group.

“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.

Is Strauss right in his fear of the “tyranny of the like button?” I would say yes and no — but mostly no. Not that what the author is describing doesn’t exist, because I think it does. Anyone who has spent any time blogging, or on Twitter or Facebook (or any one of a dozen other online discussion forums and websites) has probably felt the same way at times: wondering why something they posted didn’t get more attention, and thinking about ways to draw more eyeballs or comments or likes.

Always be closing

Dave Pell, a veteran blogger and technology entrepreneur, wrote a great post about this very phenomenon not too long ago, in which he described how social networking and living huge parts of our lives online can result in a pressure to judge ourselves by how many votes or tweets or likes we get — which he compared to the famous line from the movie (and play) Glengarry Glen Ross: “Always be closing.”

When I post a photo of my two year-old daughter on Facebook, I expect likes. I expect comments about how cute she is. And if I don’t get them, I consider the sales-effort to be a failure. Maybe it’s my camera skills. Maybe the timing of my posts is off. Or maybe it’s my two year-old. Sure, everyone in my family likes to think she’s the cutest little button in the whole wide world. But the numbers don’t lie.

Do we all feel a subtle — or not so subtle — pressure to conform because of the explosion of features and services that allow people to vote on what we produce? Sure we do. If I post a photo on Instagram, I want it to get a lot of comments and “likes,” and if I post something I think is funny or smart on Twitter, I like to see it get retweeted a lot. And if I write a blog post (like this one, for example) I would love to see lots of comments, and a big number next to the tweet button and the Facebook like button.

I’m not sure this is something terribly new, though, or that social networking is to blame. Strauss seems to contrast our current era with some mythical period when the Internet was a bastion of non-conformity and everyone was entitled to their own point of view, or when we were all free to “show our true selves online.” I’ve got news for the Wall Street Journal writer though: there was no such time. For the most part, people have always promoted a less-than-true or idealized version of themselves online — just as they try to do in the real world. Social networks may have amplified this, but it has always occurred.

We all create versions of ourselves

Sociologists have described at length how users of social networks and other online worlds create personas for themselves that are either entirely fake (i.e., a different sex or a different background) or at least partially fake, in that they portray a much better version of themselves than they would otherwise — which is just one reason why so many online-only relationships disintegrate when the two people involved meet “in real life.”

And while the online world may seem a lot like high school in that we are all feeling the pressure to conform, that could be said of the real world too — why else would so many people wear clothes they hate, pretend to like sports they can’t stand, or laugh at a joke that isn’t funny simply because their boss told it?

Strauss is right, however, that bowing to this kind of pressure — submitting to the tyranny of the like button — can be bad in a lot of ways. If it encourages people to submerge the things they are really passionate about and not take chances for fear of not being accepted, then that’s probably not good. Dave Pell describes how a venture he started recently called Delivereads (which sends long-form articles to your Kindle) didn’t get much traction when he launched it, and this caused him to doubt whether it was a good idea or not. But he persevered with it, and tried not to think about how many hits it was getting or not getting.

So is there a subtle or even overt pressure exerted by all the like buttons and retweeting we see around us? Sure there is. But it wasn’t invented by social networking, and it won’t disappear even if we get rid of Twitter and Facebook. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to resist that pressure to conform — it just means we should be aware that it’s part of the way human beings operate, whether they are online or not.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Gabrie Coletti