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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

What's Not to Like?: Facebook Announces a New Button

Posted By on Wed, Sep 16, 2015 at 11:30 AM


Although Instagram suddenly has about ten times the sponsored posts it did a month ago, and Twitter’s going to let you buy things, the real news from the social media world has been Facebook’s announcement that it’s finally working on a dislike button, or its equivalent. The Head Replicant In Charge delivered the news as if he were Prometheus unveiling the impending disruption of cold with fire.

“What [people] really want is the ability to express empathy,” Mark Zuckerberg said.

It’s almost as odd as his New Year’s resolution about “shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.” (Just try and read that out loud in a non-robot monotone.) I’ve never been more convinced that Zuckerberg’s ambition to comprehend human emotion will eventually acquire a weird mysticism the way an aging J.P. Morgan’s obsession with immortality takes on Ancient Egyptian overtones in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

click to enlarge If I posted this photo of Dreamforce greeters posted outside my office building because it's been taken over by Dreamforce, I would expect all my friends to dislike it. - PETER LAWRENCE KANE
  • Peter Lawrence Kane
  • If I posted this photo of Dreamforce greeters posted outside my office building because it's been taken over by Dreamforce, I would expect all my friends to dislike it.

Superficially, this move is overdue, because there are situations where the like-only menu is woefully inadequate. When a friend of mine got mugged on Sixth Street by a meth freak last month, he posted it, as most of us would do, to let the whole world know in one fell swoop and to exorcise the demons of shame and worry. You don’t really want to “like” something like that, except that liking in that circumstance has come to stand for “I acknowledge the shittiness of your situation,” which is to say, empathy.

On the one hand, this is evidence of how Facebook has warped our conception of what it means to connect with people, possibly beyond repair. On the other, the odds of anyone misinterpreting a like as some sort of wicked glee regarding a drug addict stealing your wallet are pretty close to nil. (In theory, we can circumvent this whole pickle by taking five extra seconds to write a comment expressing genuine empathy, but since many people do so with clichés like “BIG HUGZ!!!!” this is but a negligible improvement.)

Still, if there were ever a season of dislike-worthy memes, it would be summer 2015. We suffered through various characters — Dr. Walter Palmer, Kim Davis, Josh Duggar, the Hungarian camerawoman — ascending to the status of #WorstPersonEver only to pass it on, plus there’s been a Polyphonic Spree of GOP presidential hopefuls making noise in the background the entire time, led by one particularly heinous schmuck.

click to enlarge Pretty dislikable. - ALTPRESS.COM
  • Pretty dislikable.
But the downside of the dislike button — which is probably going to be called something else, and the search for that name is probably what’s been holding up the whole show — seems obvious, and not just because we already have Reddit. I’m skeptical that disliking will be shorthand for empathy, since it’s such an easy conduit for venom, contrarianism, and general Debbie Downer-ness. (Link to something hopeful about climate change, or Bernie Sanders, and I bet someone who would otherwise have just scrolled past it will show you how they really think without having to craft any kind of argument for why.)

Likelier than not, the dislike button will meld with outrage culture in a depressingly seamless way. While it’ll kind of fun to see some offensive corporate branding ploy go viral for having gotten 12 million dislikes, those episodes are always tinged with that same pitchfork-wielding zeal that made the worldwide vituperation over Cecil the Lion so off-putting. (Let us all congratulate ourselves for taking time out of our day to hate something terrible, together!) Plus, shame-sharing a fast food company’s ill-conceived tweet is still advertising, in a way.

Closer to home, I’m probably going to wave bye-bye to the Facebook page for every outlet I ever write for. Ninety-seven percent of comment section trolls can be shrugged off, but a blithe, non-verbal dismissal of something I hard worked on will get under my skin such that I will just have to disengage — and I can’t imagine I’m alone there.

Still, none of this is going to stop me from using the dislike button once the option is there. It will be irresistible when another cop shoots an unarmed black man, or if Ted Cruz hawks more merch. I know I’ll have to forcibly yank my index finger away from the screen when people post status updates that consist only of airport codes linked by a —>, for instance. And God help any Californian who complains about the rain, should it ever come.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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