Likes ruined everything
[Author’s note: I originally wrote this in a pocket notebook while waiting in the airport on my flights to and from RetroWorldExpo in August 2022, reflecting upon how much it meant to me to meet up with my online friends in person and how big of a deal these events are for me – even if I only do one every year or so. I originally expected this to turn into a video essay or something down the road; Unexpectedly it’s incredibly timely today in light of current events and the impact they may have on how we approach social media moving forward. I figured it was the best time to explore this new writing platform (which I’m LOVING, by the way) and go on and have this discussion.]
Likes have ruined everything. They were such an obvious implementation, the most effective engagement driver in retrospect;– let people express their feelings about a post. Hell, some are still begging for a mythical dislike button. But such a tiny, innocent feature changed everything. It only took a few short years and a few specific platforms implementing it before the motivations behind nearly everything posted to social and content platforms shifted towards one underlying goal: Get more likes. This wad only exacerbated by platforms like Facebook shifting towards algorithmically-driven feeds, where more engagement gets you seen by more people, thus getting more engagement... the cycle never ended. If you post something to social today – a Facebook post, photo on Instagram, a Tweet, a YouTube video – you track how that post is doing by seeing how many Likes it gets, or who liked it. Getting a like from someone you respect or someone with a lot of followers is a big deal, even if they never once actually say a word to you. It’s now common practice to regularly log into one of these apps or websites just to check on likes or to see if it was a waste of time to post anything. That’s not a normal human or communication behavior. For those of us around on the net prior to modern social media, things weren’t always like this. Sure, Likes existed on forums. They were a nice gesture to show support for a post or thread without saying anything – but they didn’t matter. Virtually no one thought that Likes added value to their life or that their self-worth was measured by it. Instead, you logged back into the forum to see if conversation sparked from your thread. To see what other human beings around the globe had to say about your ideas! I know in the era of Twitter bots and angry Facebook Karens, that’s a scary concept... BUT it’s in that simple distinction that arguably made the pre-social media internet more social. Baity posts or hot takes for Like farming, dunking on others, etc. were frowned upon and quickly shut down in the forums and IRC/IM days because they just soured the mood for everyone and didn’t promote good conversation – I’m not sure how we lost this along the way. The more people that crowd into a once-niche online space, the more bad actors show up, requiring more moderation, not less. But when platforms are run by profit-driven boards and shareholders, you can’t just... ban people!!1!!one!!!1!!eleven!!!i!!!
I’ve seen a lot of videos and blogs lately decrying the death of Instagram and talking about how the app VERO supposedly reignites that “community” feel. I get it, a change in environment can make a big difference in how you feel, and people frequently feel they have a tighter-knit community when they switch to a more niche platform (and shed their bigger audience along the way). Having content feeds based on who you follow is great, and a breath of fresh air – but a brief one. The tools to manage different “circles” of friends (a notable Google+ feature that I miss dearly, and now also a Twitter feature) gives awesome control over who sees what. But the actual act of posting your work? Hasn’t changed. Post the image, farm your likes and an occasion comment. Log in, check for likes. It still feels wrong.
Conversations are meant to be had on small, personal levels. Open broadcast is either shouting into the void or getting lost in the noise. Art is meant to be studied, pondered, contextualized, and appreciated. Reducing everything to gut-reacting and low-effort likes, while feeding content into a dopamine-hit slot machine just... hurts everything. It changes why you do it, how you do it, how often you do it, and how you feel about it. [With “it” being anything from chatting to making art to reflecting on yourself.]
In an interview, Jerry Seinfeld said [I can’t find the exact quote now] something along the lines of that he keeps his new jokes a complete secret for at least 24 hours. He keeps them to himself so he can sit with them and make sure he still likes them the next day – so he has time to form a proper relationship with his work. He does this because by telling it to someone else, getting there reaction to it (positive or negative), that alters the relationship. Someone else’s input changes how you feel about your own work, and you don’t want to do that too early before your own feelings have actually set in. That just stuck with me so much. I don’t know that something more true has been said about an artist’s relationship with social. Not just with social media, but most importantly, their relationship with their own art. That relationship is incredibly important, and distorting that with the fallacies of social media is tragic. I feel this with my own work every day. I can spend AGES crafting a high-tier video, making something I’m really proud of – and the nature of the work means I have to post it pretty quickly and just wait for likes, nasty comments, and to just hope that it earns the views to make it feel worthwhile. Sometimes I can feel good enough about a video that it doesn’t even matter how it performs, but so often does it feel like my efforts and craftsmanship were a waste. And regardless of performance, there’s very little time to just sit with the work I’ve made; as soon as I finish one video, it’s onto the next (I’m usually running behind by that point). That issue affects non-video artists, too. If you spend days or weeks crafting the perfect piece, or taking and editing the perfect photo, you can’t just keep instantly turning around and repeating that cycle to feed the Algorithm Gods.
It breaks my heart to see artists I look up to, who make top-tier work and are constantly improving, who are made to feel their art is getting worse or is less interesting just because they’re getting less engagement on Twitter (or fewer sales of their NFTs, which gets even more toxic and gross). Likes are not a measurement of your work’s worth. It’s also not a measurement of your own self-worth, but we now have a not-insignificant amount of people across multiple generations who end up feeling that way – at least for a phase of their live, usually formative ones. Think of the cliche scenario (that people often mock or complain about) of a teenage girl or young woman who constantly takes, deletes, and re-takes photos of herself and has to keep re-trying based on if it gets enough likes quickly enough – regardless of how busy her “audience” might be at the moment she posts. This sounds amusing to some, but it’s honestly heartbreaking. Her self-esteem, her relationship with such and important thing – the literal image of her own face – is completely distorted by the number of likes she gets on an app, something she has ZERO control over. I know this hypothetical person is usually over-exaggerated, but these people DO exist, and I’m discovering more and more that so so many people’s photos of themselves basically have their entire faces replaced in apps like FaceTune and FaceApp and that’s just... really uncomfortable. It’s beyond unhealthy.
The transition from “social networking” (which was arguably around since the dawn of the internet via BBS and email) to “social media” felt like both a natural shift and an incredible revolution. It brought a lot of good things by allowing people like myself to build their dream jobs, for others to present their work and land their dream jobs, for people to meet their lifetime partners, and to generally democratize creative fields. But it also brought a lot of bad. I grew up in a time where tabloid culture was everywhere. It arguably still is – just handled through social media gossip instead of actual tabloids or fan sites – but it was a little different then. At the time, the subculture of gossiping about celebrities’ lives were seen as people who needed less free time, it was generally seen as a tad more “gross” than it probably is now. Celebrities were a wonderful source of drama before everyone’s drama became sources of entertainment. They got divorces, cheated on each other, and had massive drug and alcohol problems. A lot of these people struggled with the pressures of a job that required constantly being in the public spotlight, performing regularly and pretending to be different people. Shouldn’t it have been obvious that those very things that drove people with infinite money and massive safety nets to ruin might be even more problematic when handled by everyday people? *[The answer is a resounding “yes,” but when our fun hangout places online went from being run by the everyday people to explosive mega-corps that care only about profit and doing everything they can to keep you on their site instead of someone else’s... these things aren’t considered. Zuckerberg didn’t consider how he would impact everyday life (or elections or anything else for that matter) and neither did the people of Twitter when they took a political campaign propaganda tool and turned it into social media, either.]*
I originally wrote most of my thoughts on this back in August 2022 during my trip to RWX in Connecticut. I was reflecting on my existential struggles during a particularly rough period of burnout, as I often do, and just wanted to get some things off my chest. I scribbled these notes in a small notepad I kept in my shoulder bag for the trip, and wasn’t sure if it would ever leave those pages. I didn’t have answers, after all. I knew we were at a breaking point, I knew the very basis of “social media” was flawed, but I didn’t know what to do with that energy.
Tangent Time: Rejecting Social Media Since 2004
I’ve always used social media “wrong.” I got stuck in the ‘90s and early ‘00s: The days of having a bunch of IM accounts linked together via Pidgin running from a flash drive and chatting on forums for lengthier discussion with niche communities was PEAK socializing online for me. I got to keep in touch with all my friends, while choosing what to share and when. The idea of staying in touch with people you’d otherwise lose to the void of time was super appealing, but as an introvert I still had the exchanges under my control. Even as my own job became being an online “content creator” [Which I’m finally seeing why people feel is such a gross label...] I still didn’t run things as a “brand.” My Twitter presence has always been 100% unapologetically me since day 1. If you didn’t like it, you were welcome to not follow or mute/block me. It was my home for outward-facing textual communications, and I wasn’t going anywhere or quieting down. With YouTube and streaming I specifically avoided the obvious-winning strategy: Parasocial relationships. The reason some streamers and creators have such die-hard fans and can rake in so much money from tips is due to that aspect. A parasocial relationship is a one-sided one – the viewer invests time, energy, emotions, and money into the relationship and the creator has no real idea that person exists. They might shout your name during a stream to thank you for a tip, they might reply to your chat messages;– but when they stop streaming and aren’t on other social media, you don’t exist to them, you are not their friend. This whole thing has never made sense to me to participate in, has always made me super uncomfortable (especially coming from the ‘90s where people trying to groom you online were everywhere and avoiding them was basic survival), and my few attempts to leverage it more to boost my success has never really gone over well. I’m not a “friend” of random viewers, my life doesn’t depend on them. I don’t even really consider the “content” I produce to be entertainment, I’m an educator. The more I have to try to appeal to parasocial needs or be an entertainer, the more I feel my work suffers and my goals are unmet. Parasocial relationships are toxic and can lead to some serious abuse – in both directions. Every woman I know in streaming has way too many stories of stalkers and dudes who go way too far over the line in their delusions of being in a relationship with them. And that’s mild compared to the insanity surrounding idol and v-tuber cultures in Korea and Japan. It’s absolutely terrifying over there and everyone seems to be happy to keep partaking in it because it’s an easy source of money. I just can’t, in good faith, do that.
Similarly, I also left TikTok. I didn’t want to. I LOVE the idea of short-form videos for news and education, in my time on the app I learned SO MUCH about so many different fields and really felt like my third-eye was opened to efficient communication and the advantages of micro-content and removing all roadblocks to idea sharing. I’ve pushed for democratization of creativity my entire career, so of course I love the idea of removing every barrier in the way of a real marketplace of ideas. But TikTok came with a lot of bad, too. TikTok isn’t a social media platform, it’s not a great video platform. It’s a slot machine. Every feature, every singular aspect you could possibly interact with as a viewer or creator is designed to give you the biggest and most repeatable dopamine hits possible, and absolutely abuse it. I won’t waste time diving into the nitty gritty, but the moment you find yourself checking it every day, scrolling your FYP waiting for the perfect videos to show up, or posting hoping something randomly blows up due to unpredictable mechanisms completely out of your control... it has succeeded. It’s altering how your brain works to make you crave it and change how you view and do so much. It takes everything I complained about in the main body of this writing and dials it to 11 with zero shame. Historians will look back on the impact TikTok had with horror, maybe like we look at smoking. A completely obvious health hazard that’s 100% avoidable, yet people actively choose to take on that addiction anyway and corporations are all too happy to shove it in your face and profit from it.
Make the net weird again, and bring the “social” back
All this to say, I never really found myself belonging in the social media paradigm. As time went on, my tiny digital portal to a new realm where I fit in, found friends, made lasting relationships, and in some rare cases was even cool no longer felt like home. I no longer fit in, I’m uncomfortable and everything eels foreign. People I was (and could still be) great friends with feel like complete strangers after they’ve been altered by the TikTok Effect, or friends I made as we were all figuring YouTube out over a decade ago went to live in a Gamer House and converted to bro culture while high on their own success. Social media took communication and made it transactional. The people we saw as assholes for only caring about people who could offer something to their life or provide them value were suddenly... everyone. The inherent nature of broadcast-based communication, limited characters, and engagement-driven algorithms completely removed all nuance and transformed how we interact in general. Twitter is, of course, a prime example of this. From the beginning, turning “friends lists” into “follower counts” and replacing smilies and emotes in response to messages that didn’t need worded replies with Likes – along with the public room broadcast nature of how the Twitter feed works – distorted socializing from an interpersonal communication to a weird amalgamation of public speaking, interviewing, and heckling. Twitter as an actual social network was never really going to work. Posts are “status updates” not conversations. Twitter’s success – like so many things online – was in spite of its dysfunction, not because of it. When it was a small, niche site, self-moderating and herd tolerances allowed it to serve as a communication hub for many. Once it became a public forum? Things started falling apart. It’s been falling apart for years, and the more I’ve sat with things and pondered the future over the past week I’ve come to be grateful to Elon Musk. He was the perfect Patsy to put Twitter down quickly. If Twitter falls, this may end up being a crucial step in bringing about the next phase of online discourse, the true “Web 3.0” separate from blockchain and crypto sleaziness.
As so many people flood to Mastodon, culture clash is in full swing. People are so used to the weird ways of “social media” that they’re having a hard time adjusting to the mechanics and etiquette of actual “social networking.” You’re expected to be there to have conversations and interact there – and instance owners are (in most cases, hopefully) going to be happy to remove bad actors to preserve the core of the community. Decentralizing your online social presence means realizing that putting the entire populous in the same room and having them duke it out with snarky quips, memes, and hot takes was perhaps not the best idea for global communication. It means accepting that choosing a specific “time and place” for individual conversations is the way to go. Algorithms to provide an endless feed of other people’s messages to you that you didn’t ask for? Of course that was only ever going to promote conflict and the worst versions of ourselves; that’s out too. It also means putting the power back in the hands of the people. Federated services are ran by individuals, small communities, and organizations. A mega-corp could absolutely run their own instance, and that’s totally fine (and the correct choice over hosting their brand on a public/community instance, for so many reasons) but that mega-corp doesn’t get to control the platform, or influence what you do on it. That’s so powerful. We’re going back to the days of individual blogs, fansites, forums, and so on. There will be some growing pains, there will be some bad actors (Truth Social is run on Mastodon tech, after all – most reasonable instances just have hard blocks against that instance for obvious reasons) but I cannot envision a future that doesn’t involve us moving back towards this model.
If you’re worried about losing contacts: Build actual relationships. Get people’s contact numbers, email addresses, actually communicate with them. Due to my ADHD, I tend to (effectively) forget people exist if they aren’t in my face 24/7 and that causes me to not reach out for long periods of time – but rarely have I encountered someone that I had a true, meaningful relationship with that acted like it was a problem to strike up conversation again years, or even a decade later. What a lot of people are really freaking out about is losing their reach. And yeah, that’s a thing. I have 17K followers on Twitter – not an absurd amount of people, but it’s one of the biggest collection of colleagues and viewers that I have in one place outside of my YouTube channel. It allows me to reach out to other YouTubers and streamers in ways that I might not get through otherwise. Or at least, that is how it feels in an era where our expectations have shifted to places like Twitter being the only place for those kinds of chats. In reality, I’ve reached out to just as many people over email or Discord, and my Discord server is quickly catching up to my Twitter follower count. But really, those numbers don’t matter. My Discord server has been my home since I created it, and more people joining won’t change that. I value my Discord far more than Twitter or Facebook, etc. because it’s a place where real conversations happen. We have channels and categories for different interests and just chat with each other. That’s so much more pure than “following” someone to be “fed” their posts.
Things are going backwards in some ways, but really it’s just revitalizing past ideas with over a decade of hard lessons and new knowledge. I think it’s going to be even better as these crazy decentralized services get more adoption and with it, more adaptability to everyone’s needs.
Let’s make the net weird again.