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Like, Sympathize, But Don’t Hate: How Social Media’s Enforced Positivity Is Making Us Dupes

A couple of years back, we ran a post called “The 10 Things That Are Killing Indie Music in 2011.” It discussed various ways in which the world of indie music could be better, and generated what amounted to a heap of attention for Flavorwire at the time, also stirring a healthy debate in the comments section (all of which sadly got nuked when we switched over to Facebook comments). Inter alia, several commenters took me to task for being “negative,” asking why I didn’t write something positive about the world of music instead of criticizing it. And, y’know, sure, why not? A couple of weeks later, I wrote “10 Things That We Love About Indie Music in 2011.” It generated precisely one-tenth of the traffic the first post did, proving neatly that for all people’s stated good intentions, negative pieces were a whole lot more popular on the Internet than positive ones. Or so it appeared, anyway.

But maybe not. The success of relentlessly positive sites like Upworthy has turned this paradigm on its head of late, leading to much chin-stroking and long, serious essays like Tom Scocca’s much-publicized piece for Gawker last week. Our own Michelle Dean has already written an erudite response to the whole smarm/snark debate, and I don’t want to go over old ground here, except to agree wholeheartedly with her contention that “positivity is just as much of a pose, a style, as negativity, and so just as much of a trap.”

This is true, except for one thing: positivity is increasingly enforced on us. This seems particularly relevant this week in light of the news that Facebook has apparently considered introducing a “Sympathize” button to go with its iconic “Like” button, so as to avoid those awkward instances when someone bitches about something in a status update and you’re not sure whether to Like it or not — you don’t want to imply you like the thing that’s upsetting the person in question, after all.

There are a couple of issues bound up in this. First, there’s the fact that it’s kinda hilarious that this has become such an issue that Facebook feels it might be necessary to provide a new button for people to express their emotions — and, similarly, the fact that users might also consider such a thing necessary when it takes two seconds to type “Shit, sorry your cat died” or whatever else is required instead of hitting Like.

The second is more pernicious, though: the use of a button to express emotions is an example of the use of technology to subtly influence the way we interact with the Internet, because it limits one’s range of expression. Everyone knows that in real life, you don’t just Like things, Sympathize with things, or feel nothing about them; you have a whole range of emotions, from disinterest through dislike to active loathing. Facebook knows this too, of course, but the site gives us no mechanism to express dislike — sure, you can just take it to the comments section and say “This is bullshit,” but it won’t register in the same way a Like will in the article’s Like count. It’s not like you can subtract one Like for every dislike (which, come to think of it, isn’t a terrible idea).

Once you start looking, examples of this technological sanitization of our emotions and desires are everywhere. The way our smartphones insist on correcting “fuck” to “duck,” making like we live in a world where curse words don’t exist. Twitter (and Facebook and Tumblr) telling you who followed you but not who unfollowed you. Instagram and Facebook censoring nudity. The way Google won’t autofill searches for potentially porn-related words. And so on. They’re all small things, but they add up, especially considering that we live in a world where the average user visits only 89 different sites a month, and probably spends the majority of their time on only a few of them.

The aggregate effect amounts to a subtle shaping of the Internet experience by the tools that more and more of us use to interact with it. For those of us who remember them, it’s reminiscent of the bad old days of AOL, where you were given a browser but weren’t allowed out of the AOL kiddie pool into the big, nasty Internet. Funnily enough, though, the early Internet was a rather civil place — it wasn’t until the advent of Web 2.0 features like comments sections on articles that things started to get really toxic, so much so that early advocates of such ideas have turned against them and others have abandoned them entirely.

You might argue that the forced positivity of Facebook, etc. is a way to combat this trend, but it’s not, not really. After all, when have companies like Facebook ever acted out of altruism? What do they have to gain from this relentlessly positive world? The answer, I think, is this: they’re shaping a sort of commercial cyberutopia where we happily share “content” with a minimum of fuss. As such, it’s entirely in their interest to make the Internet — or their corners of it, anyway — as nice as possible. In this respect, the BuzzFeed/Upworthy model is genius. You might share “The 10 Shittiest Album Covers of the Year” with your friends, but “15 Cute Kittens Who Don’t Like These Album Covers”… well, you’d share that with your mom and her friends, too.

And sharing is key. If you’re old enough, remember the world before the Internet for a moment. If you wanted to share an article that you’d read in the paper, you’d either have to cut it out or photocopy it, and then either mail it to whoever you wanted to share it with or give it to them in person. It was an effort, in other words. And as such, it was something you’d only do if you’d encountered something really good.

Then came the Internet, and a whole new way of sharing. The first manifestation of this phenomenon was forwarded emails, those stupid latter-day chain letters that used to fly around people’s inboxes in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Everyone knew at least one person whose entire method of interacting with the world seemed to consist of forwarding “funny” emails that were often written in multicolored Comic Sans. You might read these, you might delete them. Either way, no one would know any different.

And then came social media: websites entirely devoted to trying to keep us engaged for as long as possible, websites that exist by monetizing our desire to create a presence for ourselves online.

In his book Immortality, Milan Kundera has some interesting words about the ways we define our personalities, and thus set ourselves apart from others. He calls these the addition method and subtraction method. The subtraction method essentially involves shedding aspects of one’s life to distinguish one from others. But it’s the addition method that’s more relevant here. It involves collecting aspects of personality that distinguish you from others, then proclaiming these to the world. Likes and dislikes. But mostly likes. It’s chimera, of course, as Kundera notes: “[Such people] use addition to create a unique and inimitable self, yet because they automatically become propagandists for these added attributes, they are actually doing everything in their power to make as many others as possible similar to themselves; as a result, their uniqueness, so painfully gained, begins to disappear.”

This idea that our likes and dislikes begin to merge us back into the herd is fascinating, because the one great rule of Internet sharing, I think, is confirmation bias. People share content that reflects their world view, finding validation in the fact that others feel the same way. And they often do so without bothering to actually interact with that content in any more but the most cursory manner. Take the fake interview with Kanye West that satirical website The Daily Currant ran over the weekend. Read it carefully, look at the website, and it’s pretty obvious that it’s fake. (Related content includes “Selena Gomez Says Bieber Has ‘Tiny, Weird Penis’” and “Pope Benedict Comes Out as Gay.”)

That didn’t, however, stop a whole shitload of people from sharing the article as if it was real. Same thing with the fake Paris Hilton tweets after Nelson Mandela’s death. I mean, honestly, people will believe anything (well, just about anything):

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You might giggle and sigh at their gullibility, and I must admit to doing the same… right up until I saw the video that surfaced yesterday afternoon on the San Francisco Bay Guardian website about a Google employee telling protesters to leave if they couldn’t afford being in the city. I shared it on a friend in SF’s wall, who in turn shared it with her friends, a process that was doubtless being repeated on the Facebook walls of countless other people concerned about gentrification in San Francisco…

… and it was fake. Sucked in. If I’d had to email that to someone, perhaps I might have thought about it a little more carefully, and considered the fact that I wasn’t too familiar with this outlet. Had they checked their sources? Didn’t the whole thing seem a little too perfect? But it’s so easy just to click that little Like button, to feel momentarily outraged and somehow vindicated, and then go back to work. One more page-view, one more unique visitor. Click.

The more we buy into this idea of interacting with the Internet in a safe but ultimately superficial way, the more we reduce our ability to engage with it in a more profound way. This is a great shame, because the Internet is one of humanity’s great achievements: a huge portion of the sum total of human knowledge, right there at our fingertips, a quick search away. And all we do is share Upworthy links about inspirational cats with three legs. We can do better.

Now, go ahead and click “Like” and share this as widely as possible, OK? Thanks.

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