“Which human instinct does the ‘like’ button appeal to more?” I asked. “Laziness or positivity?”
Burke—again, unsurprisingly—chose the latter. “If it were laziness, you wouldn’t respond at all. Pressing the ‘like’ button is more than a single click; there are all kinds of social implications about your relationship that go into that single key press. ‘Is it creepy? How long has it been since we last talked? Do I still care about her, and does she care about me? What will other people think?’ Pressing ‘like’ is a signal that you care.”
Indeed, a “like” is large. It contains multitudes. Like any other form of nonverbal communication, there's so much that can be said, and in such a subtle way. Maybe that's what we're all after. In a domain that's so cluttered with blinking ads, viral nonsense, and anonymous vitriol, a “like” is one way not to harsh someone's vibe.
But to hell with subtlety. In the name of science, I decided to knock down the fourth wall of the upvote friendship complex by contacting a number of said friends directly and asking them for their take on our passive tendencies.
Their responses varied drastically. Some acknowledged laziness. Many ultimately pointed to the efficiency factor. A couple said nothing at all. One suggested I, you know, pick up the phone to talk. Another pointed out that technology eliminates the need to check in on our friends because we're constantly doing the checking in for one another. Sometimes it's all we really have time for.
“I browse through my news feed as an ADD habit at work just to take my mind off of something for 30 seconds,” said one. “I’ll like things because that’s basically all I can do at the moment.”
In taking sides on the matter, people seem to fall along a Turkle/Hampton divide. That is, they either echo the views of Rutgers professor Keith Hampton, who believes lightweight interactions are entry-level fodder for reviving latent friendships or engaging with our communities, or they take MIT professor Sherry Turkle's more cautionary stance: that we use technology as a crutch, expect less of one another, and are lonelier as a result.
But did reaching out to my old friends lift a veil of complacency that had settled over us simply because Facebook enabled it? Not exactly. If anything, it seemed to confirm that people have and always will grow apart, even while remaining in the other's corner, so to speak.
“When the telephone first came out, people worried that it would destroy relationships, since it appeared to be a ‘cheaper’ way to communicate,” said Burke. “Same for email. But we’ve realized over time that the channel is less important than how you use it. You can say hi to someone in the hall every day and not feel close; conversely, getting a ‘like’ from someone you haven’t seen in three years can remind you how great they are.”
But not so fast! That still doesn't answer the question of why we persist in falling in and out of “like,” but all at arm's length.
“Sometimes you just don’t know what to say to a friend, even if you support them, so it’s easier to click ‘like,’ ” said Burke.
Are we too overtaxed, Dunbar-wise, to meet for coffee, or is it simply that we like one another, but only in small doses? I guess if you're ever keen on finding out, you could always just write an essay about it.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.