By now, I’m certain we are all familiar with Justin Bieber’s ill-fated PR visit to the Anne Frank house. His note, “Hopefully, she would have been a Belieber,” while ill advised, was probably meant as a compliment. The social media scene, however, immediately blew up. We zipped through the jokes, self-righteousness and justifications in a few hours, and no one noticed it was a comment indicative of our culture.
The trademark feature of Facebook is not friend requests or status updates. It is the “like” button. For example, when Google attempted to enter the social media market, the first thing it did was create a “+1” button to compete with “like.” We live in the time of the loose connection: Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and supporting causes from couches. The term “like” is so generic, so harmless, so versatile even, that it has become the word of our generation. Centuries from now, historians will call these decades “the age of ‘like.’”
It is well documented that social networking websites are not offering services to the public; they are selling people’s information and views to advertising agencies. To the number crunchers at Facebook, everything is extraneous except likes. The bands, causes, movies, foods and anything else that you like are what gets sold back to you. Strangely, though, not only have we accepted this, but we have also altered our language and culture to reflect our obsession with liking things.
Truthfully, I am more interested in our side of the “like.” When one is creating an online profile, think of how much one’s personal tastes in food, music, clothes, etc., factor into the equation. The average Facebook user is said to like around 70 pages, which doesn’t even include statuses and photos. Or consider Pinterest, literally a social networking site that is nothing more than boards of what one enjoys, while Twitter is a maze of favorites and retweets. Defining not only our avatars but also our personalities through what we like is what we do.
This strange desire to associate by likes carries over into everyday conversation. It is how we connect with new people: online forums, interest-based websites, clubs, etc. It is what you say to acquaintances: “I don’t like the professor. On the other hand, I do like the sports team.” More importantly, we have to make sure our likes are acceptable and relatable to our peers. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Hey, what do you think about the Jonas Brothers?” Five years or more, right? We constantly manage our likes and dislikes to keep them relevant because we are judged by them.
This brings us back to Bieber. He either thought about the message he was writing for a few seconds or had planned it in advance. If he had thought for a few seconds, it is an easy jump from, “I want this to be relevant, related to me and complimentary at the same time,” to “Hopefully, she would have been a Belieber.” If he had planned it in advance, what reason would he have to write anything but, “I thought this girl was amazing. Hopefully she would have thought the same of me”? It isn’t strange he tried to convey the desire for mutual admiration. It was bizarre because there is a label for things.
What I found so strange about the blowback of Bieber’s comments was the cognitive dissonance it represented. In our culture we pretend to judge people by deeds, but we define people by what they like. Hundreds of years ago, when men and women began giving each other surnames, they focused on family ties or things people did: Edward, John’s son or Robert the baker. To our ancestors, occupation and family were the most symbolic and indicative of a person. Considering the society in which we live, if we began renaming people, wouldn’t we start with Danielle the Belieber or Anthony the Whovian?
Micah Watanabe is a freshman at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]