Is there a more annoying type of article than the kind that laments the Facebook "like"? America used to be a place with moral standards, the story invariably tells us, and now kids these days constantly "like" everything, and all the false praise leads to etc. etc. etc. Jenna Wortham, in The New York Times yesterday, has a surprisingly thoughtful short essay on the subject. But although her tone is pleasingly non-judgmental, she still allows for some of the same assumptions about the Internet's supposed effect on society.
The piece begins with a story: On Wortham's Instragram feed, a friend posted a photo of (her/him?)rself in green thong underwear. And, what do you know, the photo had lots of likes. The problem, Wortham explains, is that "the feedback loop of positive reinforcement ... gives us a little jolt, a little boost to keep coming back for more." She adds that the "instant gratification" of Facebook likes and online approval leads to a situation wherein "we are ... one another's virtual enablers." To further her argument, she quotes a UNC professor who states, "The fact that the world is going to see you increases the risks you are willing to take. ... It's perfomative." Meanwhile, a UC Berkeley professor tells Wortham about a study he conducted: "When people were told that their networks liked the content they were sharing, they shared more. But when they were told that people in their network did not like their shared content, they actually shared even more to figure out what their network might like, and 'come up with more content that was edgier.'"
The problem with this argument, even if we accept the results of the study, is that it views the Internet as having filled a void. So, instead of nothing, we have people congregating online and behaving a certain way. But of course—as, ironically, those who lament our lack of face-to-face time these days constantly remind us—the Internet is often replacing other forms of interaction. Thus, rather than meeting my friends on the corner for a walk around the neighborhood, I go online and post photos. Whether this is a net good or bad for society I cannot say; but certainly some of the same dynamics of online life occured when we were socializing in person. Perhaps the friends I hung out with on the street corner would urge me to to set off a car alarm. And perhaps if they disapproved of what I was doing in some way—or found it insufficient—I would then be more likely to break into a car, so as to really impress them. Who knows?
In fairness to Wortham, she ackowledges that all sorts of behaviors existed before the Internet. But too often the discussion of Internet trends jumps off from the idea that human behavior was nearly nonexistent before the world wide web. All the studies you can conduct about the Internet—from porn viewership to social interaction—mean nothing unless they explain what came before it. Are we experiencing an uptick in subversive or risky behavior these days? It sure doesn't seem that way.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @ichotiner.