Like, retweet, and the growing hyper-simplification of online methods of expression
In the course of our day-to-day lives, it can be easy to forget that, a mere couple of decades ago, most of us could not use computers to talk to people. Widespread internet access has since revolutionized communication and entertainment with astounding speed for an ever-expanding slice of the world’s population. Reactions to this kind of radical novelty generally fall into either of two camps: those who fear (or, occasionally, hope) that enveloping ourselves in new media environments will cause dramatic, unforeseen changes in our minds and lives; and those who picture us less as helpless recipients and more as autonomous users of a set of changing tools that we could pick up or put down as we please. As with most such polarized debates, there is truth to both ways of looking at it. The effects our social media have on us, and the ways we choose to use them, make up a feedback loop in which each influences the other. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube reshape our lives and minds, not by enslaving or coercing, but largely just by giving us what we want — and, in turn, shaping what we want.
The practice of “retweeting” — copying another person’s tweet, with attribution, prefaced by “RT” — arose organically out of the nascent Twitter community. By late 2009, this bit of etiquette had become so ubiquitous that it was formalized as a built-in function of the site, allowing users to retweet with a single mouse click, and also see how many times a given tweet had been repeated. Now, observe here an intriguing commenting behaviour, on a wholly different website, in which the users paste in a previous comment and put a number beside it to indicate how many times it’s been repeated.
Even in the unstructured, verbal medium of the comments field, with no built-in retweet button and no formal system logging the repetitions, we see a number of people avoiding using their own words in order to instead “cast a vote” for someone else’s. They deliberately represent themselves as part of a countable mass (in this case, of devoted fans), rather than as an individuated person with a novel point of view. I have no idea how widespread this particular trend is, but I think it exemplifies an ongoing shift in the way online communication is done, one in which Twitter plays a big part (and I find no sign of people doing this prior to Twitter’s rise). The retweet has developed a draw above and beyond the mere ease of sharing it provides — it’s actually become a preferred way of communicating, at least in some circumstances. Twitter’s own display of the day’s “trending topics” regularly encourages massed groups of users to marshal themselves together and overwhelm the ranking with retweets, or with tweets containing some key phrase (sometimes celebrating a Jonas brother’s birthday, sometimes entering a viral publicity contest).
Another recent phenomenon has been the spread of voting systems and “Like” buttons across the web, spearheaded by Facebook and major social news-aggregating sites like Digg and Reddit. Almost everywhere you go now, comments and content can be thumbed-up or Liked or otherwise publicly rated. Earlier this year, Youtube switched its age-old five-star video rating system for “Like” and ”Dislike” buttons. While removing all nuance from its rating system might look like a senseless dumbing-down, Youtube explained that it had perfectly good reasons for doing so: the vast majority of video ratings, it turns out, were either five stars or one star, so people in essence used the rating system as a like/dislike button anyway. By the same token, many websites’ comments sections already consist of a bunch of people saying largely the same few things over and over; why not cut the self-importance (the universal conviction that I have something special to say that everyone ought to hear) and consolidate the discussion to a few key points instead? Maybe the younger “internet-native” generation, long immersed in the web’s anonymous cacophony, is just recognizing this early, and gravitating toward kinds of expression that resemble throwing in a lot rather than standing on a soapbox. But we’re all increasingly using these more streamlined ways of communicating online. What’s worrisome is wondering if this might streamline how we can think and relate to others, too.
Denunciatory responses are all too ready to hand, here: plastering the internet with “like” and “dislike” options encourages us to make simplistic, binary evaluations of everything. Thumbing down an item with which you disagree is much easier than engaging or arguing with it. Constantly echoing others’ words allows us to never bother becoming articulate in the expression of our own views. Generally, this kind of talk — in the absence of solid evidence for, say, reduced writing ability in Twitter users — registers at the level of mere alarmism. But there are at least some broad changes social media have made to our preferences in communicating that are easily felt.
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It’s now a familiar observation that phone conversations have been supplanted, to a large degree, by email and texting. A phone call, particularly one not of the clipped and utilitarian “I’m on my way over” sort, has started to feel like a gesture, a bit personal and intense (and, for many, awkward). Now, Facebook messages, wall posts, and comments, in certain uses, seem to be edging out email. Facebook puts us in a constant, low-simmering sort of contact with many distant people at once, making grand, written catch-ups feel redundant. With a friend’s status updates and wall perpetually providing the opportunity for little bits of casual contact, sending an email begins to feel like a big deal — bigger even than using the similar, but more bounded and simplified, Facebook messaging system, which feels less like going out of your way simply by virtue of being part of Facebook’s interface. (It’s as though, rather than storming into their email inbox, you are just contacting them “in the same place” where you and they and a couple hundred other people you know are already vaguely, perpetually, and somewhat solipsistically “hanging out.”)
What’s more, Facebook’s Like button has now allowed us to do away with much commenting, allowing one-click responses that require the least engagement possible. The abiding desire to leave a mark without having to write a comment is probably the reason we so incessantly hear people complaining that they want a Dislike button as well. And, sure enough, some popular websites have begun to enact still more fleshed-out reaction systems. Items on meme-aggregator site Buzzfeed are accompanied not only by a “Love” button and a comments box, but also a set of “reaction buttons” that includes “LOL,” “OMG,” “WTF,” “CUTE,” etc.; these reactions far outnumber the comments on every post. Articles on The Huffington Post now sport reaction buttons as well, with the set of choices tailored to whether you are reading something in the Comedy section (“Gross,” “Funny,” “Crazy”) or the Politics section (“Important,” “Typical,” “Scary,” though also “Funny”). Written commentary is increasingly unnecessary.
This is not to say that every Facebook friend’s breezily clicked Like replaces what would have been a deep and personal phone chat or letter in days of yore. Far from it — without a doubt, this button also does what it’s purportedly supposed to, removing streams of positive but not particularly content-rich comments and saving the comments box for more nuanced expression. But, as ever, having the avenue for this kind of disengaged, maximally easy social contact encourages us to take it, and thus become used to it, and thus begin to perceive deeper engagement as tiring and maybe even a bit inappropriate. Is it pure paranoia to imagine reaction buttons becoming more complex and widespread, comment boxes shrinking and moving to the sidelines, the act of commenting taking on the crankish feel of writing a letter to the editor, our online responses being de facto confined to whatever the buttons encourage us to “say”?
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Of course, it bears constantly remembering that the providers of these services are motivated to profit, not simply to please their users. Facebook’s “Pages” (profiles not for individual users but for businesses, celebrities, abstract concepts, etc.) and the Like button both debuted in early 2009. At first, users could “Become a fan” of any Page, which would display itself on their profile and become enabled to send them notifications — very valuable to businesses, and to Facebook, for which this created a treasure trove of information about what interests its users. In 2010, while expanding the Pages function to be used on sites across the web, Facebook also quietly changed the “Become a fan” button to an image displaying a thumbs up and the word “Like.” In one fell swoop, the serious, identity-shaping connotations of declaring yourself a fan of something were replaced with the much lower-commitment sense of declaring that you “Like” it; and Facebookers who had already gotten used to Like-ing their friends’ posts and photos were given the impression that it was just the same for them to Like (sign onto the Pages of) movies, brands, and whatever else. Getting more people to sign onto Pages means big money for their proprietors — $3.60 USD annually per “fan,” according to one marketing firm — and this new, oh-so-clickable Like button* is now all over the web (scoring Facebook a “huge branding coup” with the word as well).
That opportunistic obfuscation of ideas through language might cause Orwellian shivers to run down some spines, but it doesn’t seem so much sinister as simply shrewd marketing. It should, however, remind us (lest we ever forget) that Facebook is not just our playground, but also a company seeking profits. Despite waves of bad publicity over its privacy policies and a general, griped-about sense of unfashionable over-popularity that has lingered ever since high school students were allowed to join the site’s original postsecondary population, its growth continues at an astonishing pace. Facebook hit 100 million active users in August of 2008, 200 million in April 2009, 400 million in February 2010 and is about to announce reaching the half-billion mark; this is the expansion of a social network which has reached critical mass, which non-users almost have to join because everyone else already conducts their affairs there. Facebook seems to ever be approaching its goal of becoming “the planet’s standardized communication (and marketing) platform.” As services like Facebook and Twitter become so tremendously ubiquitous, and as we increasingly move our social lives and leisure time into them, changes made to the architecture of the sites become very real changes to the architecture of our lives. We as individual users don’t have much power to decide what sites become popular or how they are designed, but we can still at least choose and use our playgrounds carefully. And, just maybe, try to go out of our way to enjoy the nostalgic charm of a real, >140-character email conversation every now and then.