Emocracy: The Chains of “Like”

More than in any previous period of human history, emotions rule our private, professional, and public lives[1]. How, when, and why did the shift from keeping emotions “under cover” towards today’s extrovert emocracy take place? I’m exploring this question in a few posts of which this is the second one[2]. In the first post, I explained Psychology’s Curse: the role of psychology and psychotherapy in describing the tools by which emotions can be managed; creating a dream of a blissful-ever-after emotional state in this life; and upgrading emotions to “what makes us human”. In this post I will talk about the role of social media in bringing emotions to center stage, and in particular about the impact of the “like button”.

My second hypothesis is: The “like button” locks us into the emotional state of a pre-teen child; and its complicity with the widespread “people who…”-algorithm keeps us chained into being (rather than: having) our emotions. Whatever we come across on social media, the presence of the “like button” forces us into a mindset of choosing between “pro” and “con”; whenever we “like” something, the algorithm of “people who liked this, also liked…” solidifies our reaction in time and space. Online, we are what we like – and once bound by the chains of liking, we become unable to step out of our emotions.

“Pro-con-ism”: Practically all social media sites offer a “like button” – an easy-to-click mechanism to express applause to something we see online. Of course, one effect of such a mechanism is that it makes us hungry for applause – and worried, sad, or outright depressed when we’re not getting the acknowledgement we were hoping for[3]. But in the context of emocracy, another effect of the “like button” is more worrying. Presented with such a simple way to express appreciation, we are nudged into simplistically evaluating everything we see in terms of “pro” and “con”[4]. We are forced into the black-or-white decision of either applauding or staying silent (the latter complete with the qualms of whether not liking something will make them think we dislike their post so they will be mad at us in turn and retaliate by not liking our next post). With this, more sophisticated forms of reacting to observations, events, or statements are lost. On social media, there are very few constructive conversations starting with: “What exactly did you mean by saying…?” or: “I’d like to better understand…?”, leading to step by step clarification and increased mutual understanding. Neither, by the way, does the “like button” favor an introspective stance of asking myself: “Why do I react positively (or negatively) to this?”.

In terms of psychological complexity, the equivalent to this “pro-con-ism” is the typical mental state of a pre-teen schoolchild: Jean Piaget’s “concrete operations” or Robert Kegan’s “imperial balance”[5]. This is the child who likes pasta and dislikes peas, likes spiders and dislikes dogs, is heart-broken when their favorite soccer team loses a match, and is obsessed with collecting, counting, and categorizing. It’s the boy or the girl who stands up for their own wants and needs; can temporarily suspend them if appropriate praise or punishment is offered for delayed gratification; will negotiate elaborate tit-for-tat arrangements to accommodate others’ wants and needs without getting short-changed – but has no access (yet) to the more complex idea that others have (different) inner states that demand respect, understanding, and empathy in themselves. Hovering over the “like button”, we become such kids again: “pro-cons” locked into what we like (or dislike)[6].

“People-who-ism”:  One of the most common algorithms employed by social media sites is a variation on the “people who”-algorithm. First popularized by Amazon, the algorithm originally used our shopping behaviors to show us what other customers with similar shopping behaviors looked at or bought. From a business point of view, this approach makes sense for a shopping platform, as there’s indeed a likelihood that people who bought a dog leash might also need dog food, a feeding bowl, or a muzzle. It’s also acceptable that the (fewer) people, who bought the dog leash as a present or because they are into bondage sex games, are also shown dog food, feeding bowls, or muzzles, because the only consequences are shrugged shoulders, a bit of amusement, and another good story to share (on social media, of course). However, when it comes to the “like button” on social platforms, things get more complicated. Turning a person who clicks “like” on a friend’s photo of a dog with a leash into a “person who likes dog leashes” is already a significant leap of faith[7]; bagging them in with others who like dog leashes is even more daring – or outright dangerous, if the dog leash happens to be a meme used by a global terrorist group training dogs to execute suicide attacks in dog-walking parks around the world.

By setting into motion a chain reaction of linked “likes”, “People-who-ism” fortifies the identification with our emotions that the “like button” put into place. First, we are what we like; then, we are somebody who likes what we like; and then we become somebody who likes everything else that somebody, who likes what we like, likes. Like the eight-year-old who suddenly likes olives because the new girl next door likes olives, and he likes her because she – just like him! – likes PokémonGo, we virtually collect likes (and dislikes) because of the likes (and dislikes) of those whose likes (and dislikes) we like (or dislike). Then – as the internet doesn’t forget – our likes solidify as our identity across time and space, turning into the permanent and pervasive characteristics defining who we are. As the chains of liking pull closer and closer around us, we end up being nothing but a paralyzed bundle of likes (and dislikes). And somewhere on the way, the grown-up complexity of owning up to our emotions as something we have – as opposed to something we are – is lost[8]; and the fact that liking (like any emotion) needs the specific context of concrete circumstances is forgotten.

* * *

Online, we are what we like; we bond with those who share our likings (or dislikings); and the more we like, the more we are chained by what we like. The “like button” is emocracy’s coat of arms; the “people who” algorithm is its secret mantra. Once chained by our likes, what do we do when things come up that we don’t like? This will be the topic of my next post.

Stay tuned!


[1] This piece is the third chapter of a series of blog posts on emocracy. The opening chapter can be found here and should be read first for context and perspective; the second chapter – on how the success of psychology contributed to the rise of emocracy – is here.BACK TO TEXT

[2] The questions: “What is gained? What is lost? And for whom?” and: “How do we want to shape our living together now and going forward, given that the age of emocracy seems to be here to stay?”, will then be addressed in later posts.BACK TO TEXT

[3] Leah Perlman, the former Facebook employee credited with inventing Facebook’s version of the “like button”, talks about this effect at length in a lovely interview on VICE (2017) [retrieved Jul 29, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[4] Facebook’s more recent variation on the “like button”, offering additional buttons to express “love”, “haha”, “wow”, “sad”, and “angry”, does not change this, as apparently Facebook evaluates all reactions as a hint that we want to see more of the same content. See this article for more details [retrieved Jul 29, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[5] See Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self (1982) for details, including tables comparing his definition of the developmental stages with Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and other developmental theorists.BACK TO TEXT

[6] It could be interesting to explore whether and how the fact that many of the indigineous inhabitants of the internet were (very) young kids contributed to how the mechanisms of action and reaction are set up online. This, however, is tangential to my current argument.BACK TO TEXT

[7] This, of course, is a simplified way to interpret the “people who…”-algorithm. It could also derive that the person likes their friend in general (because they “like” all their photos); appreciates their dog; likes dogs in general; likes their new camera; likes the fact that their friend has time to take a walk with the dog; like the dog leash because it’s a piece that used to belong to their friend’s recently deceased grandfather etc etc. The basic challenge, however, is only made more complex by the amount of possible interpretations of the “like”.BACK TO TEXT

[8] A while ago, I wrote about how to stay sane in this age of algorithms – read the full article here [retrieved Jul 30, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

Respond to Emocracy: The Chains of “Like”

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