Now on Facebook and disliking it

To listen to Mark Zuckerberg describe it, Facebook’s new ‘dislike’ button, or whatever it ends up being called, will be useful for instances when you’d like to acknowledge a friend’s post that might herald bad news, such as a death in the family. “Not every moment is a good moment,” Zuckerberg said this week, adding that the new button will be a way to “express empathy”. Which means, if we adopt it as we have its more positive predecessor, things are going to get weird.

Back in 2011, two years after Facebook decided to adopt a “like” button, and a year after users were able to “like” each others’ comments, Neil Strauss took to the Wall Street Journal to recommend that we “rise up” against its “tyranny”. The “like” button – whether on Facebook or elsewhere – has made us conformist drones, searching the internet “not just for information, merchandise and kitten videos… but for approval.” 

His argument that we consciously post items to social media tailored to ensure people will like them, and therefore not necessarily those things that might be a true reflection of ourselves, is compelling in that when anyone does the opposite – that is, posts something too awkward or too revealing – we all cringe. Strauss is likely right: the point of Facebook is to gain general approval for what we’re doing.

But, of course, we seek approval in all kinds of ways, and they are certainly not all with positive or even strange posts. In fact, as it happens, the most cringe-worthy thing that people do on Facebook is reveal too much in the hopes of receiving approval via sympathy. 

We all know how this is done. These are the posts that are usually cryptic, often carrying a vague allusion to having been wronged in some way. Or perhaps a semi-philosophical note about some recent lesson learned about humanity in general that is, as we can all clearly see, a thinly-disguised, passive aggressive seething of annoyance at someone within social media earshot. And they are begging for only one thing: a validation of suffering. 

You see where I’m going with this.

It’s very possible that the so-called “dislike” button will be a handy tool to note your shared displeasure about a news story about a natural disaster, or a clear misfortune that befalls a friend, like a broken arm or a death in the family.

More likely, however, it will be an annoying disaster – a click sought after by the forever moping, put-upon warriors just fighting for their own personal piece of justice. These are the people we can now happily ignore because, since few feel they can “like” these sad little posts, the algorithm doesn’t bother to bring them to the fore in our news feed. But give people an option to express notional sympathy – or empathy – and the sympathy searchers will be in your face all the time, butting out the things for which you really might share concern, or that have true import, or that at the very least carry actual information as opposed to general melancholia.

It’s going to be awful.