Absence of Like


We have already suggested, in an earlier installment of The Realtime Chronicles, that “that our new transcendentalism is one in which individual human operatives, acting in physical isolation as nodes on a network, achieve the unity of an efficient cybernetic system through the optimized exchange of parsimonious messages over a universal realtime bus.” To recapitulate: this idea draws on both (1) Norbert Wiener’s observation, in The Human Use of Human Beings, that

society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and … in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part

and (2) the following, more recent observation by Vanessa Grigoriadis, made in a 2009 article in New York magazine:

This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand. In a time of deep economic, political, and intergenerational despair, social cohesion is the only chance to save the day, and online social networks like Facebook are the best method available for reflecting—or perhaps inspiring—an aesthetic of unity.

There has long been, among a certain set of fussy Internet intellectuals, a sense of dissatisfaction with, if not outright hostility toward, Facebook’s decision to offer the masses a “Like” button for purposes of automated affiliation signaling without also offering a “Dislike” button for purposes of automated dis-affiliation signaling. This controversy, if that’s not too strong a word,  bubbled up again recently when Good Morning America reported that  Facebook “soon plans to roll out ways to better understand why you don’t like something in your News Feed.” This was immediately misconstrued, in the popular realtime media, to mean that Facebook was going to introduce some type of Dislike button. “We’re Getting Close to a Facebook ‘Dislike’ Button,” blurted Huffpo. Nonsense. All that our dominant supranational social network is doing is introducing a human-to-machine messaging system that will better enable the automated identification and eradication of offensive content. It’s just part of the necessary work of cleansing the stream of disturbing material that has the potential to disrupt the emerging “aesthetic of unity.”

The pro-Dislike crowd, in addition to being on the wrong side of history, don’t really understand the nature and functioning of the Like button. They believe it offers no choice, that it is a unitary decision mechanism, a switch forever stuck in the On position. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Like button, in actuality,  provides us with a binary choice: one may click the button, or one may leave the button unclicked. The choice is not between Like and Dislike but rather between Like and Absence of Like, the latter being a catch-all category of non-affiliation encompassing not only Dislike but also Not Sure and No Opinion and Don’t Care and Ambivalent and Can’t Be Bothered and Not in the Mood to Deal with This at the Moment and I Hate Facebook — the whole panoply, in other words, of states of non-affiliation with particular things or beings. By presenting a clean binary choice — On/Off; True/False — the Like button serves the overarching goal of bringing human communication and machine communication into closer harmony. By encapsulating the ambiguities of affect and expression that plague the kludgy human brain and its messaging systems into a single “state” (Absence of Like), the Like button essentially rids us of these debilitating ambiguities and hence tightens our cohesion with machines and with one another.

Consider the mess that would be made if Facebook were to offer us both a Like and a Dislike button. We would no longer have a clean binary choice. We would have three choices: click the Like button, click the Dislike button, or leave both buttons unclicked. Such ternarity has no place in a binary system. And that’s the best-case scenario. Imagine if we were allowed to click both the Like and the Dislike button simultaneously, leaving our mind in some kind of non-discrete, non-machine-readable state. One doesn’t even want to contemplate the consequences. The whole system might well seize up. In short: the Like button provides us with a binary affiliation choice that rids affiliation of ambiguity and promotes  the efficient operation of the cybernetic system underpinning and animating the social graph.

Isolating Dislike as a choice would also, as others have pointed out, have the problematic result of introducing negativity into the stream, hence muddying the waters in a way that would threaten the aesthetic of unity and perpetuate the “economic, political, and intergenerational despair” that accompanies active dis-affiliation. Here, too, we see the wisdom of folding the state of Dislike into the broader state of Absence of Like as a step toward the eventual eradication of the state of Dislike. Optimizing the cybernetic system is a process of diminishing the distinction between human information processing and machine information processing. So-called humanists may rebel, but they are slaves to the states of ambiguity and despair that are artifacts of a hopelessly flawed and convoluted system of internal and external messaging that predates the establishment of the universal realtime bus.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here. A full listing of posts can be found here.

Photo of women programming ENIAC from OUP.

8 thoughts on “Absence of Like

  1. Adam Engst

    A few contrarian thoughts:

    * I fail to see the obvious superiority of a binary system to a ternary approach – on/off is certainly simple and powerful, but -1, 0, 1 isn’t exactly mentally taxing. And, if nothing else, that slight additional choice emphasizes our humanity – we are not digital computers capable only of binary decisions.

    * A simple binary choice badly represents the actual opinions of users. There are many things in this world which people actively don’t like, and bundling dislike into inaction is thereby misleading. The vast majority of people who see some item aren’t going to click a Like button, but if some raw number do, the conclusion that the item is popular is likely false, just because there was no way of registering actual opinion.

    * Adding a Dislike button doesn’t change the negativity of the system, because that’s already determined by the content of the item in question and adding a Like option merely reinforces the existing positive or negative aspect of the item. If I post “I hate beets” and you Like it, you’re increasing the negativity of the whole.

  2. Nick Post author

    To Like the statement “I hate beets” is to neutralize its negativity. To Dislike the statement would have the effect of amplifying its negativity. This is about messages. The beets, as “things” in the world, are neither here nor there.

  3. Luke G

    A “Like” on Facebook very literally creates (and possible ‘just creates’) a new connection between two nodes in their network — an “edge,” as it’s referred to in graph theory.

    As is a friend, a photo, a message, or a visit to a website measured with a cookie (which Facebook has, too). All are edges; of different sizes, shapes, directions and weights, but edges still.

    The value of a network, as MySpace and others show, lays not necessarily in it’s size but in it’s growth rate. A vast, unused network is valueless; little information travels between nodes. It needs new nodes, and new connections.

    The graph is hungry.

    You are, as far as the machine understands, your network.

  4. Nick Post author

    I feed the graph with loops, but I’m well behind in meeting my quota of edges. The graph is disappointed in me. I can sense it.

  5. GASM

    English isn’t my main language, so please forgive my grammar in the case it’s a fail.
    That post should rather have been entitled “Absence of Dislike”.
    There is no “Absence of Like”, it doesn’t exist as an observable thing, as Like is the only thing Facebook keeps score of and cares about (at least so far).
    Everything else, “not only Dislike but also Not Sure and No Opinion and Don’t Care and Ambivalent and Can’t Be Bothered and Not in the Mood to Deal with This at the Moment and I Hate Facebook” might be legitimate human opinions, but they are completely ignored by Facebook’s droids, basically because they won’t earn them a shilling.
    For them, what you like is what you buy (or at least make some announcer reasonably hope you will). Period.
    If there was a way to monetize a Dislike button, it’s damn sure it would have been there since beginning.
    “The promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it” is the pious vow of people whose only purposes are wealth and power.
    As any ad profiling processor they are basically parasites, making every consumer (including those who don’t have an account) pay for providing their “free” service, without asking them anything.
    Whenever you buy an item, some small fraction of it’s price is what it’s producer paid Facebook for ads. It’s not a charge directly related to item production (meaning it doesn’t increases quality, safety or anything in the final product), but every ad-buying company has to take marketing charges into account when setting their selling prices.
    Whenever you click Like on Facebook, you might, if you Like something related to anything that can be sold, increase the value of your profile, thus increasing the fee Facebook takes on any item or service provided by their announcers.
    It’s your choice to Like things on Facebook or not, but you really don’t have the one not to give them money, or you’d need to know everything Facebook sells ads for, and not buy them.
    Advertising is taxation, but when you pay your taxes you expect them to be spent on roads, schools or hospitals, with ads all you get is visual and audio pollution, in other words, brainwashing through constant hypnotic stimulation.
    Hopefully, there are ways to get rid of them, using Adblock Plus being the easiest and most efficient I know (https://adblockplus.org/).
    Using and spreading it around you helps starving intrusive advertisers to death (someday…so don’t spare them a second !).
    We all hate parasitism, taxation and brainwashing right ?
    On a side note, another effect of the “Absence of Dislike” is security for brands : otherwise their status could get “Dislike-bombed”, by botnet or actual people. Thus, there will probably never be a Dislike button in Facebook, as it is bent toward commercial money-making.
    And also, tough Facebook seems to use a binary system, it all revolves around the 1, as 0 has no meaning, no value, no existence, somewhat like in roman or other antique numerical systems. 0 only becomes defined (thus meaningful) if you have -1 as well. If you don’t believe me try to locate the center of an half-line.
    As for “enable the automated identification and eradication of offensive content”, it only sounds like censorship. Why should people be prevented to see material they don’t like ? To live in a more comfortable illusion ? It enforces, by creating a filter bubble, the vacuum of the 0 component.
    I’d like to expend this to voting and politics but I would need another post to explain how -1 would change the way polls work.

  6. grizzlymarmot

    With the data that is collected as you navigate the virtual reality of Facebook, it is easy to determine what you ‘Like’, don’t like, are ambivalent about, et cetera. I suspect that the data collected about you without the ‘Likes’ reveals more of the real you than your ‘Likes’ reveal about the virtual you.

  7. Brad

    Interestingly, adding “Love” to the mix (so as to expresses that you do not merely “Like” something but you really, really “Like” something) would have a negative side effect.

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