A World Without “Likes”

A review of Irresistible by Adam Alter. Kind of.

Here’s something a little jarring: The word “addiction”’ was first used to describe slavery, a la, “She is heretofore sentenced to addiction.”

Addiction is another word for slavery. Good thing you can’t go anywhere without your phone!

If you feel uncomfortably attached, you’re definitely not the only one. You’re meant to be addicted to that little glowing rectangle in your pocket (or your bra. Or your waistband. Gotta do what you gotta do.) People get paid to make those images on your screen as inviting as possible. Those delicious little dopamine hits you’re getting? They’re super a part of the plan.

The other day I had a thought: “When I feel the temptation to pick up my phone for no reason — to check for something that might not even be there and doesn’t matter anyway — if I just resist for a few minutes, everything in the real world becomes clearer, more beautiful, and more interesting.”

I quickly picked up my phone to write that down in my journal, which is on my phone.

Shoot.

The trouble with today’s most common behavioral addiction — that of the first-world person to their smartphone — is that complete abstinence isn’t necessarily an option. We’re in deep, boys. So deep that if you feel addicted to your phone, you might also feel that you’re better off just enduring it. After all, it’d almost be more trouble reconfiguring your life to be smartphone-less than to just deal with the habit — try your best to moderate it, get off the grid once in a while. Most of our logins are linked to our Facebook account, tons of precious pictures and videos are stored on social media platforms around the web, and scores of people would have lost touch long ago if it hadn’t been for the far-reaching connections of social media. Also, the cloud. The cloud!

I’m wondering if it’s possible to talk about this without sounding like a crotchety, out-of-touch, shotgun-on-porch-wielding old man. We all know we’re addicted. We talk about it all the time. But when I recently read Irrresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter, what compelled me most was the idea that social media isn’t addictive by nature, but is made to be by the companies that stand to profit.

Irresistible does a good job of accepting that this is our world now — smartphones aren’t going anywhere, and that’s okay. Most people aren’t exactly hoping to have to churn butter anytime soon; we like our convenient modern lives. But the book doesn’t let companies off the hook, either. We have been abused by our devices, and deliberately. Our smartphone addictions don’t only point to a problem with our brains, but to the shameless exploitation of our brains’ natural weaknesses. Alter argues that we could have the connections social media makes possible — these friendships maintained and relatives found and pictures shared; these influential discussions of ideas that have truly changed the world — without the destructive, isolative, and ego-exploiting barbs that social media platforms and smartphone apps have strategically arranged to keep us hooked and scrolling for more. And a lot of it comes down to one small, game-changing feature: The “Like”.

I remember joking around with a friend a few years ago about how we knew when an instagram post was a hit. We decided that you could tell a post was really good when “the names turned to numbers.” We were only half joking. The feelings of worthiness that we got when a photo and caption were double-tapped enough to show “11 people liked this”, rather than “nickykens and swole_lifter_69 liked this”, were real. We were admitting to each other, with an air of self-deprecation, that our photos didn’t get a lot of hits, and that we cared — at least a little bit. For some reason, the little numbers mattered.

Of course they did, though. It takes an extremely confident person to share something they’re proud of, and be okay with it impressing no one. Our lives have become a constant, public show-and-tell; it’s no wonder so many of us get caught up in comparing. The metrics of it all make it easy to see who’s ahead: Everyone’s worth is tied to a tiny number on a familiar screen, which makes it much easier to quantify and certainly easier to track. And when you can numerically track something as vital as your likability, you naturally start strategizing how to increase it.

“Likes” have gameified our lives. So try, for a moment, to imagine your social media accounts without them.

For me, I feel a kind of relief. I have wasted so much time compulsively counting likes, growing up in the social media age, that I almost wretch to think about it. In some ways, they’re a useful metric: It’s nice to know how a piece like this is received, for instance, because I spent time on it and have hopes of getting paid to write. But the fact that I used to be able to recite the Facebook status of mine that had, up to that point, gotten the most likes, and I knew the exact number and the specific people (generally) who had liked it — that’s a problem. Those statuses had no real purpose (other than to entertain in return for sweet, sweet dopamine), and they weren’t getting me anywhere but stuck in an addiction to knowing what people thought about me. I’ve had several friends comment their jealousy of my “Like” counts (which aren’t even that high, but are higher than some) and ask me for my secret. It flattered me at first, I felt proud of my internet success — looked up to, even. But then it occurred to me that they wanted my likes, and someone wanted theirs, and I wanted more, no matter how many I already had. None of it would ever be enough.

This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking realization. But I had never considered that social media could exist without the validating “thumbs-up”, without the little heart that pops and glows when you click it. “Likes” seem so central, so fundamental to the way social media functions. But — what if? What if posts from personal pages were made to be like-less?

We might miss it, at first. Those counted clicks make you feel like there’s something about you to like. But once you feel that first hit, and you associate it with a number, it begins to be a Sisyphisian chase of some weird local fame. And if you don’t keep an eye on it, it can easily mutate into a destructive behavioral addiction. Facebook exploded overnight with the introduction of the “Like” function; it’s no wonder that almost every other platform has followed suit.

But maybe they’ll stick around, and maybe eliminating “Likes” isn’t the answer. Regardless, these days I think we could all benefit from remembering that just about anyone can get addicted to just about anything (see: the TV show My Strange Addiction. I’ll never forget the episode about the woman addicted to sniffing gasoline), especially when so many of the things we interact with day-to-day are designed to draw us in, to addict us to the empty metrics that naturally tie themselves to our personal worth.

But this is our world now. Technological abstinence isn’t always an option, and until tech companies take responsibility for the addictiveness of their products you can expect to stay at least marginally hooked. If you can, though, you’ll do yourself a favor by remembering this: Most of us are here for the same boost you are, and none of it matters.

I doubt “Likes” are going anywhere. But it might be a good idea to make sure you’re able to go somewhere without them.

Yung monsta. Notorious flake. Wannabe everything.

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