08/01/2013 17:58 GMT | Updated 10/03/2013 05:12 GMT

The Meaning of Like

A 'like' on Facebook or Instagram can make or break a witty status update or a particularly arty and well-angled shot of your quinoa entree. 'Liking' is now the dominant manifestation of social approval; that little heart or 'thumbs up' is now the arbiter of acceptance, of relevancy. As Jonathan Franzen has observed, Facebook has transformed "the verb to like from a state of mind to an action you perform with your computer mouse". But what does such a change mean? What is the significance of this proliferation of popular endorsement?

In order to think about what 'liking' is, I think it is fructiferous to look at what it is not. Most obviously, "liking" is not disliking. Aside from YouTube, only cooly positive reactions are allowed to ours and our friends' shared trivia. Surely this cannot help but fuel our inner narcissist, as we are invited to interact, to participate without fear of criticism. Unlike in almost every other aspect of life, on Facebook and Instagram, we will meet only praise or silence. We will be slapped on the back or calmly tolerated, but never rebuked. And who wouldn't want to dwell in such an unequivocally supportive environment as often as possible? I wouldn't be surprised if the "liking" mechanism is at the heart of Facebook's anodyne allure; the addictive hook, the fixating reward for any internet junkie.

Perhaps more importantly, though, 'liking' is not loving. This is clear enough from the fact that in particularly emetic 90s romcoms people in love 'like like' each other - the double negative almost implying love is the opposite of like. Liking something (and it almost always is something) requires virtually no personal investment. It is as near to the definition of an emotionless positive disposition as the English language gets. It is the language of temporariness; of endless flings but never a marriage. As such, liking accepts its own exhaustibility, its own sluttiness. It is the the throwaway term of endearment of the voracious consumer.

The prevalence of 'liking', then trains us in consumption, in obsolescence, and validates the apparatus of consumerism through its application to our own life events and its validating ubiquity amongst our peers. Because as much as a 'like' is an acknowledgement, it is also a dismissal. Once "liked", your caustic observation about the people on the bus or that Amaro tinged cityscape you so carefully cropped are relegated to the memory hole. It is a 'lol' instead of a genuine laugh; a colon close parenthesis instead of a smile.

But is all this falsity and lack of investment such a bad thing? Is it not all good clean fun? Well, maybe. But just maybe it has a nefarious twinge. Maybe it normalises, and, more insidiously, personalises, the fecklessness of the consumer and fungibility of consumer objects. The great paradox of Instagram is that it relies on the most modern technology to generate a simulacrum of the old. And in applying a 'filter', you are ageing your own photos before their time; lavishing them in the authenticity of yesterday, while basking in the rapidity and convenience of today. It seems no coincidence that Facebook and Instagram use terms such as the perpetually present 'news feed' or the ever forward moving 'stream' to describe key components of their site, because they rely on the ever constant plod of the never-satiated consumer. They are, after all, not neutral technologies, and are always trying to sell you something; always trying to keep you coming back.

And what is all this 'liking' doing to us, aside from normalising the fetishisation of novelty? Well, to answer this, you need only think of the person who always tries to be liked. The slippery populist who only wants to please everybody for his own self-aggrandisement. It goes to follow that if a certain status update or photo gets more 'likes' than another, then we need to post more similar content for the same hit of peer approval. This, in turn, cannot help but change other people's perception of us, but also our perception of ourselves. Moreover, the quest for 'likes' may even govern the experiences we choose to take part in; the content we choose to generate and share. And if we're aware of our own antics in this regard, it follows that we'll suspect our friends of similar manipulation and self-censorship. Such suspicion, it seems, could only denature our relationships, and foster cynicism instead of amity.

The meaning of like, then, is twofold. It is a simple throwaway transaction, a meaningless tit for tat which mimics and (possibly) encourages consumeristic behaviour by divesting interaction of any emotional depth. It also, however, is an contemporaneous plebiscite on our actions and expressions, moulding our future decisions in the cast of the currently popular and playing to our ego to keep us coming back for more.