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Likes and Notes at a Glance: Consumption without Contextualization

8 December 2011 by

By Louis Doulas

An alternate, updated version of this text can be found here

1.

Screenshot of Pleaselike.com taken October 27th 2011

 

Pleaselike.com is a browser-based artwork by Rafaël Rozendaal made in 2010.  The website consists of an entirely white page with an embedded Facebook classic-blue thumbs up ‘Like’ button positioned in the center.  To the button’s right is an ongoing tally of people who have clicked the button. As of this minute—October 27th,2011 at 9:55 PM—18,085 people[1] have liked the website.  I have yet to participate by clicking ‘like’, a fact Facebook has made quite apparent by urging me on with the following sentence:

Be the first of your friends. 

The website first presents the user with an encouragement to submit to a seemingly interstitial request.  Nothing appears to be at stake in the user’s relationship to this request; either she clicks or she doesn’t click.  The consequences bear no apparent reward or punishment—in fact, there is a marked absence of both.  The confrontation quickly becoming slightly idiotic when prompted with the thought of not clicking.  So the user—ideally, without such prolonged apprehension—clicks and accepts, enlisting in Rozendaal’s playful game.  However, the relationship concludes at this point.  The user clicks ‘Like’, perhaps proceeds to check her Facebook profile to witness the immediate result of her action, then proceeds onto the next website in her surfing queue.

Suppose, though, that the user doesn’t click. What happens then? First, why wouldn’t someone click ‘Like’? One reason may point to the user being of the ‘private’ type, not wanting the results of her click to show up on her Facebook profile. However, anyone can hide stories like this from their profile by configuring a simple setting in their privacy settings (or alternatively the ‘Hide this Action from Profile’ option).  Pleaselike.com would still receive the user’s ‘like’, but none of her Facebook friends would see her activity.  Another reason may point to the user’s unwillingness to forgo privacy, though again this tactic is thwarted: even if the user abstains from clicking, her information will still be accounted for and collected by Facebook for merely just visiting the page[2].  Why else, then, wouldn’t someone want to click and make Rozendaal’s work ‘complete’?

  1. They aren’t familiar with the site and never actually cross paths with it.
  2. They simply put, just don’t care, moving on without further dispute.
  3. They express disdain for the artist by refusing to ‘participate’.
  4. They wonder what it means not to click.

The point here is that no one will not not-like the website and this may very well be the point of this Rozendaal work.  The user confronts the webpage with really an absence of choice, that is, the Like’s button absence of relationship to content outside of itself has already created the user’s decision for her.  Without a clear accompaniment of content (an article, an image, a video, etc.) for what the Like button is existing to support, the user has really nothing to do but to follow the authority of the website and click because of the void of other options.  The lack of harm in doing so and because of the briefly satisfying—if not mediocre—moment it offers (the chance to be a ‘part’ of an artwork, to join your peers and not feel left out, etc.) only solidifies the motivation to click.  The user here then ‘likes’ to fulfill the site’s only existence, bridging the gap of intention the artist has built.  The user clicks, not to confirm and share her taste for a specific brand, aesthetic or event, but to ‘like’ both the website and to confirm the action of liking itself; a recognition of a recognition.  The title, Pleaselike, suggests a modest tone and creates in the user an equally modest response:  “It’s no problem, really, I can click”.  Pleaselike, with no comma separating the two words is a command devoid of a command, an implication that the user do something on the page; and what is there to do but to click the only clickable thing?

Pointing to nothing but itself, the website composes an accumulation of numbers, representations of other users who also did as the user did.  There are no direct repercussions or ramifications, there is no disdain or disapproving face and no celebratory one; liking here is a seemingly empty meta-gesture. And thus Rozendaal’s critique appears to reveal itself: through the absence of any detrimental circumstances, the Like button is but a compliant form of support, producing affirmation from users and peers without requesting further textual articulation or clarification.

Just as Rozendaal’s title, Pleaselike blankly justifies its clickable implications by asking nicely, so too does the Like button and Tumblr Note carry seemingly modest and quiet but highly anticipatory requests.

2.

The Facebook Like button is a politely constructed symbol, simultaneously begging to be clicked and not to be clicked.  With no perceivable authority implied in its design and function, it never actually forces the user to engage with it. It is clicked because the user does so on her own symbolic behalf.  However, the Like button must proceed onwards under such passive-neutral pretenses, for its reliance on the user is an important determinant in the advancement of its own business model.  The Like button must exert a non-threatening interface so its users can comfortably continue to activate and integrate it into their online routine.

Besides providing a limited amount of insight to the button’s embedder, its ongoing application outside of the Facebook website, embedded into websites and blogs across all disciplines acting as basic promotional tools and neat suggestions for ‘support’ marks the convenient constructions of a self-referential Web 2.0 business strategy consisting of the employment of walled gardens[3] and financial sustainability through willingly provided user voluntarism. The walled gardens of Facebook—along with paralleling social networking sites striving for similar types of web dominance—entail that user activity is consolidated and performed through one centralized service ultimately suggesting a scarcity of ‘freely’ provided user information to those other websites and companies outside of the monopolized domain of one single, concentrated website [collecting, housing and eventually selling immense amounts of data over a supposedly fixed period of time].  These motives especially highlight themselves through the perpetual use of the Facebook Like button and of seemingly non-existant equivalents i.e. the continuation to Like using the Facebook Like button because there are no other options.  Or under similar logic, to paint a more vivid and encompassing picture (but in response to the often disregard of the expensive, fetishized computer hardware allowing for seemingly ‘free’, ‘immaterial’ social interactions and content consumption), Gene McHugh points out,

“Go on, keep chatting with your friends, watching videos, listening to music—it’s all fluid and immaterial now and that’s great—just so long as you do so through the iPad.”[4]

Though the Like button can exist off of Facebook, it never actually quite does as all action and information channels itself back into the social network.

What is of primary concern here is not the Like button’s use within the lounge environment of Facebook (liking friend’s images, statuses’, etc.) or the mining of user data for profit, but its application and accompaniment onto websites, images, articles, etc. (that today approximately 905,000 websites employ)[5] which often require and warrant an expanded critical consideration of content from its users, rather than a summarized one.  The Like button as is does its job by acting as a visual log of peer endorsement.  But what is the value in these confirmations other than providing the button’s embedder with a temporary relief from a project’s potential failure, from a user’s online alienation, from friendlessness? As well as existing as mere stepping stones in a user’s ongoing performance in self-branding? Maybe the Like button is not worthy of critique or contemplation because its utility is so specific, obvious, non-threatening and narrowly-bound.  However, a hidden, subtle conflict emerges in such evaluative scenarios that is worth noting, one that surely many users have experienced: an emptiness, a going-nowhere skewed resolve of content, of appreciation, and of understanding. 

3.

Though in many ways conceptually equivalent to the Facebook ‘Like’, the Tumblr ‘Note’ is considerably more animated and lively in form.

A white blank heart sits in the center of a small grey box at the upper right hand corner of a .tumblr.com webpage.  When clicked, the heart turns red, coming to life to represent a user’s ‘like’.  This action then generates a ‘Note’ affirming that such and such user ‘liked this’.  The note generally finds its location underneath the content that was liked and accumulates by number.  Interestingly enough, the heart ‘note’ icon doesn’t symbolize a ‘love’, as its symbol connotes. Instead, it represents something more indecisive and uncertain.  Love, in this instance, becomes far too committal of an act to exist in such a transient environment.

Nicholas liked the image of the landscape.

Nicholas loved the image of the landscape.

Even in reading it on the page or repeating it out loud, ‘love’ appears overly enthusiastic and may actually perpetuate certain doubtful behavior, causing a user to question the validity of her own taste or preference as well as placing more emphasis on decisiveness, rendering more time taken in arrival of a judgement.  A Tumblr note (or Facebook like) is safer, more multiplicative, approachable and effortlessly applicable because it doesn’t require too much commitment or head-dwelling from the user.  The ‘note’, also referencing a type of office or research/archival environment, creates exactly that, a note, a bookmark of sorts for the user; signifying that a ‘noted’ piece of content is merely just part of an ongoing growing collection of even more.  The ‘note’ isn’t meant to be permanent or committal.  Besides the fact that a user can quite literally, ‘unlike’ something at any point in time, the note suggests a constant process or perpetual construction of the self.  By serving the ever-changing mood of the user, the accumulation of notes demonstrates the malleability of her identity.

When clicked, the heart turns red, coming to life to represent a user’s ‘like’

The declarative moment of a user’s reaction to content is consolidated into a visual summarization online.  A ‘Like’ or ‘Note’ represent the rapid symbolic acknowledgement of content that is conveniently and effortlessly employed within the accelerated environment of the internet.  However, this type of acknowledgement and its symbolic equivalencies do not necessitate that an actor really ‘like’, ‘kind of like’ or really even ‘love’, something, but rather that their attention be momentarily diverted and briefly concentrated enough for her to become weary of time and respond to the moment, confirming this ‘moment’ through clicking.  In this way, both the Like button and Note button at best can only be illustrations of a generalization. Both buttons seemingly discourage the user to extrapolate, discuss, or review; but only to coldly confirm, index and performatively grow.  Employing Likes or Notes as an option for evaluating, understanding and collecting content creates an increased likelihood in the continuation of its use as a method for contextualization that never escapes from the user.  Of course, the active user will trudge beyond these buttons to make her articulations, but how does the existence of these buttons influence the growth and progress of a niche, burgeoning community of potentially undefined, uncertain users? Of users who aren’t inclined to go beyond clicking things they kind of like?

The State, for example was an online platform based on Tumblr that featured work from artists ‘who use the internet as a primary element in their work’. For each featured work, there was also a textual accounting of the critical/theoretical underpinnings each explored or encapsulated, written by the artist herself.  The goal of The State was to ‘engage a more substantial online viewership and initiate critical dialog.’[6] Embedding a DISQUS comment box allowed users to potentially do just this [initiate and circulate conversation surrounding each featured artists work and subsequent text].  However, though now defunct and ceased from publishing, one will find upon visitation of the site to be nearly void of any commentary or discussion.  Jumping from work to work, the comment section contains either nothing or a few short-winded afterthoughts (usually complimentary words or sentences):

‘a huge AVI? is this on Vimeo or streaming somewhere?’

‘<3’

‘INTENSE.’

‘!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11’

‘amazing sense of atmosphere in this space you set up’

i dont get it’

‘radical’

In fact, what one will quickly notice is the number of notes each artwork received.  While The State obviously had admirable intentions in attempting to assist peers in ‘speaking up’, its problems can be less easily discerned.  Is the lack (or dead absence) of discussion a problem of the users or, consequently, of design?  We can postulate here four potential theories:

  1. The State featured text alongside artwork. However, the text was mostly ornamental, merely a clarification or contextualized defense of the artwork featured.  The lack of criticism here could be attributed to the lack of argument or opinion found in each artist’s own texts.
  2. The State was merely a burgeoning platform.  Its audience and network were limited and small and thus the site couldn’t circulate the volume of conversation that a site like Art Fag City, for example, cultivates.
  3. The State was based on Tumblr, primarily an image based micro blogging platform.  The audience for such was thus limited to users accustomed to a ‘note’ and ‘reblog’ system (perhaps, WordPress would have been a better alternative).
  4. The pace and massive availability of content online encourages and prioritizes a consumerist approach to content.  Clickable visual symbols replace textual response online.

Though an answer could likely be found in all of the above, it is here we see a clear example of how the employment of a ‘Note’ and ‘Like’ system creates only a vague notion of valuability and understanding of content, creating not an expansion of understanding within a community but merely a consumption of it.    Notes are an indexical tool and in this aspect they become a private gesture, providing the user an archive only for themselves.  Whatever interest, thought, research, etc. is contextualized with the click of the Note is lost within the individual’s privacy of mind and in her Tumblr dashboard of collected ‘Likes’.  All justification and defense remains with the user, because there exists no output for such intentions other than her own Tumblr blog (which will either textually clarify her content or further abstract it).  Likes are, on the other hand, almost more ephemeral in that they aren’t meant to be indexed and accessed later on; they are momentarily supportive and become of no direct use to the user after the button is clicked.  Without a clear alternate option offered within the design of these platforms, certain behaviors and social interactions perpetuate themselves due to the very design the website initially proposes and promotes.  The fact that a comment box wasn’t an option on Tumblr (until recently through DISQUS) points to the original intention and purpose of the website itself: a platform of pure image aggregation.

An archive of ‘liked’ posts in a user’s Tumblr dashboard

4.

Online, the value of content culminates and accrues in a series of confirmations.  The Facebook and Tumblr ‘Like’ and ‘Note’ button are employed as measured representations of a user’s concentrated attention to multiple interests.  Likes and Notes are beneficial and may seem integral to maintaining and measuring the ‘success’ or ‘impact’ a company, restaurant, writer or artist has on its customers, supporters, fans, admirers, etc. because it may gauge the appeal and relevancy an entity has on its intended audience, revealing its niche target.  Both the Like and Note button hold a seemingly neutral ground to ensure comfort and control in the liking process.  Liking—on both Facebook and Tumblr—always signifies a taste and activity, a performative in-process construction of one’s own personalized brand, encapsulating a user’s style, politics, and philosophy.  Liking something is always found in conjunction with a declaration of individuality followed by either the celebratory identification of the individual within the crowd  or the dousing of identification through the suffocation of it.

Facebook: Sofia likes The Office, Sofia is The Office, 9,567,948 others like The Office

Tumblr: Evan likes the 3D rendered paint stroke, Evan is the 3D rendered paint stroke, 100 others like the 3D rendered paint stroke

Again we realize here that liking only represents a part of a whole. When Evan likes the image of a 3D rendered paint stroke on Tumblr and gives it a ‘note’ what can be accounted for in his gesture?  Why does he like it? How has he contextualized it? Understood it? Consumed it?  It is these clickable symbols that replace textual responses online and justify consumption without dissertation, ultimately encouraging a type of passive consumerism where things are merely nodded at and popularized through formal evaluation and understanding.  Buttons like the Like and Note firstly exist to cater to producing an aesthetic impulse within the user.

5.

A common ‘feedback’ button found on many websites and blogs online

The Like and Note button represent only the lowest common denominator of support.  If we are really to offer our deepest convictions, support and criticisms to our peers and institutions, let us actually actively communicate them–not merely click them.  As a mass that is already so disorganized and fragmented in both politic and philosophy, we cannot afford to have concerns so uncritically affirmed and so passively consumed.  If we are to value depth and progress in ourselves, in our peers and projects we must begin to articulate in order to actually comprehend and enact any kind of ideal cohesive organization.

Artists, designers and thinkers must begin to conceptualize new forms of establishing value online—ones that are more demanding and more ‘inconvenienced’.  But it is through these delayed methods and considerations that over time we will soon develop to perform and demonstrate criticality in faster inclinations with a contextualized acceleration.  Criticality manifests only in its continual use.  Current platforms like Facebook and Tumblr are far too basic and undemanding to represent any real content evaluation system.  Their existence is formed not within the domain of contemplation of content but in reaction to it and thus limited to the impulses and immediacy that accompanies brief encounters and assessments.  Current online value systems exist merely on a surface level and greatly dilute the motivation to expand the consideration of what we consume.

How is value created online?
How do we assign and ascribe value to content online?
How are our current online platforms lacking?
How can we rectify our disappointment or dissatisfaction with these online platforms?
Are we dissatisfied with the quality of content these online platforms are creating or influencing?
What can we create to expand these platforms?
How can we create more critical platforms?

These are the types of questions we should seek to be concerned with.  Only by experimenting with alternative methods of presenting, designing and circulating content and conversation will we create an even more flourishing and creative active user environment.

Serious consideration of the above questions will create new platforms and specify new questions and conflicts.  We must pay attention to the architecture and politics of the website.

BuzzFeed.com’s ‘alternative’ rating system

 


[1] As of December 8th 2011, 12:14 PM, the website has 19,345 likes.
http://www.pleaselike.com/

[2] Arnold Roosendaal, Facebook Tracks and Traces Everyone: Like This!, Tilburg Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series, 2010. Online at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1717563
Riva Richmond, As ‘Like’ Buttons Spread, So Do Facebook’s Tentacles, New York Times, 2011,

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/as-like-buttons-spread-so-do-facebooks-tentacles/

[3] Joseph Turow, Audience Construction and Culture Production: Marketing Surveillance in the Digital Age, 2005, p. 16.

Dennis Knopf, Defriending The Web, Digital Folklore Reader, Merz & Solitude, 2009, p. 11. Online at http://www.dennisknopf.net/en/index.html

[4] Gene McHugh, Post-Internet, Link Editions, 2011, p. 149. Online at http://122909a.com/

[5] Elinor Mills, Lawmakers seek FTC probe of Facebook post-log out tracking, CNET, 2011, http://news.cnet.com/8301-27080_3-20113101-245/lawmakers-seek-ftc-probe-of-facebook-post-log-out-tracking/

[6] Mission statement of The State, http://www.thestate.tumblr.com

4 Responses to “Likes and Notes at a Glance: Consumption without Contextualization”

  1. will thomas says:

    nice post

  2. Absis Minas says:

    This is so naive it hurts.

    Speaking for myself, about half of my likes are given out because I’m in either one of two moods:
    1. I want to stay/get on someone’s good side with the absolute minimum possible expenditure of effort, or
    2. The person that liked my photo is cute. In which case, I like theirs right back (everyone silently e-flirts, get over it).

    Nobody cares about “criticality” when it’s combined with networking; the fear of burning bridges tends to win out, and whatever “critical discourse” is had winds up happening in person, or over private message.

    God.

  3. [...] Tumblr, Facebook Projects: 2011, Pool 2010, Public Provisions 2010, The Gallery Space Texts: 2011, Likes and Notes At a Glance: Consumption without Contextualization 2011, Within Post-Internet | Part I 2011, Conversations: Mitch Trale 2010, Notes (Ongoing) [...]