Why the Like Button Is One Of the Biggest Icons Of Our Generation

Don’t change, Facebook. Well, I know you have, and I know you will, so what’s the point in asking? I’ve known you for over eight years — since you expanded beyond the Ivy walls — and all you've done is change. You put up your own (Facebook) walls, and added statuses, mini-feeds, advertisements, 12-year-olds, and so on. But a few years ago – in 2009, to be precise — you added the “like” button, and despite all the criticism, I just wanted you to know: I like it.

Since its inception, the “like” button has been the subject of much clicking, worrying, and theorizing. There have been a variety of op-ed pieces, often written by non-millennials, with titles such as “Why I, Like, Really Dislike Facebook’s ‘Like’ Button” or “The Insidious Evils of ‘Like’ Culture”. Perhaps most damningly, Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay titled “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” Simply put, a lot of people do not like the “like” button.

The deepest, most worried thrust of the anti-like argument seems to be that the “like” button limits and waters down our emotions. As Franzen puts it, “liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving.” If we spend our days liking things on Facebook, surely our ability to love will be diminished.

But why do we like to "like"? What purpose does it serve? Is it really replacing love? Take a message you post on your wall. Say 13 people "like" it. It’s a good feeling, we all know it. It’s good because it says, to put it simply, people like you. This may seem like a horrible oversimplification of human relations, but let us take the action at face value. We need only to look as far as Facebook’s language. “You like this.” “Dan Johnson, Johnson Daniels, 2 others like this.” They "like" it — and, in a way, they like you. It’s right there.

Now, think of something funny, happy, or sad that you posted on your wall that no one "liked." It happens, you shrug it off. But it’s a bummer. It feels, at that moment, that no one likes you. Imagine, then, one merciful thumbs-up appears. “Dan Johnson likes this” — someone likes you! Again, it’s a good feeling, undeniably.

What about dislike, love, hate? Why doesn’t Facebook have the capacity for greater depth of emotion? I am glad that these stronger feelings are not represented by single buttons because they should not be so simply reducible, and Facebook reflects that. Stronger feelings should be reserved for other mediums of communication, not mere blue thumbs. When I take three seconds to post a link on my Facebook wall, I sincerely hope no one loves it. In comparison, if I spend two hours cooking a meal? A mere “like” would surely feel disappointing.

It's a similar story with hate. Should I hate a Facebook status? No. Again, I reserve my hatred for a time, place, and object of scorn worthy of the emotion. Why should I hate a link that someone reposted without even reading it? If I truly hate something, I hope I will spend the time and energy to express that emotion in a constructive and meaningful way, and not do so through a single click on a website.

So, if we take “like” to be just that — a low-wattage expression of approval — perhaps it is not the insidious, love-replacing, communication-disabling monster that some have made it out to be. Perhaps it's just a mild positive feeling that can make others happy.

This raises a final question: Is such a low-wattage emotion worth expressing at all? If someone posts a link to a picture of a cute cat, does it matter that I, or 37 others, “like” it? Do we really need to express such passing fancies? I'll put this on hold for a second.

Maybe the fact that we like "likes" so much means our generation is a shallow one, dependent on social approval. Another famous anti-liker, Zadie Smith, writes "For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets." As bad as it gets? I don't feel that way. But yes, we like being liked. Facebook reflects our desires, it's not destroying us. 

Smith goes on to say, "If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out." Smith's, Franzen's, and all of these arguments presuppose that feelings of self-worth are wholly and intrinsically tied to these "likes." An expression of a mild feeling is used to define our narcissistic generation. These arguments seem to posit that your entire self worth is based on garnering these precious "likes." But no, only the few things that you post on Facebook each day are aimed at getting "likes." The rest of you, with your stronger feelings and emotions, remains outside of that virtual world.

I get it Franzen, you love, love, love birding. I get it, social activist — I shouldn’t just post about supporting gay rights, I should actually get up from my computer and do something about it. But just because I “like” something on Facebook does not mean I'm not taking action.

So, to return to my question above, do we need to express these feelings of "liking"? I, like Franzen I’m sure, "like" some things for which I don't feel full-blown passion. Must we have only two settings: love, and complete indifference? I’m glad I "like" some things on Facebook. I "like" that cat picture. I don't love it, but I really do "like" it. And I'm glad that whoever posted it will feel happy that I "liked" the link. Of course, I still love to love, but that won’t (and can’t) happen on Facebook.

I will continue to express stronger and more complex emotions outside of Facebook. In fact, I will express a whole spectrum of emotions that range from hate to love. I will also continue to like things in the real world. “Hey, I like your shoes,” I might say to someone whose sneakers I think are cool. Would Franzen regard such a statement with fear and contempt? No. It’s natural to express and receive these low-wattage feelings. As long as we continue to express love and hatred and everything in between, there is no reason to feel much of anything about the “like” button — except, maybe, to like it.