“A History of Like”, by Robert Gehl, a professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Communication whose expertise is software studies as well as cultural studies, was recently featured in The New Inquiry.
It’s a thought-provoking piece about our new “Like Economy”, which isn’t really that new at all. In fact, likability is something marketers have strived for since the dawn of capitalism. “You like, you buy” — a notion that was proven in a 1990 study by the Advertising Research Foundation.
However, as Gehl explains, the complexities that drive one to like something is not as simple as a button on Facebook. But, the “like button” can, according to Gehl, lift the veil of marketing’s ability to mask “the underlying complexity, messiness, and wastefulness of capitalist production with neat abstractions.”
Every touchpoint along the customer continuum “contributes to the commodity fetish, covering up the conditions of production with desire and fantasy. As such, Facebook may reveal too much of the underlying architecture of emotional capitalism. The Like button tears aside this veil to reveal the cloying, pathetic, Willy Lomanesque need of marketers to have their brands be well-liked. Keep liking, keep buying. Like us! Like us! Like us!”
Gehl does not stop at this observation, though. What would a “dislike” button do for Facebook? Well, for one thing it would never happen, as negative reactions have a disproportionate effect: “for every 10 likes, 1 dislike could tear a brand apart.” But this doesn’t mean that “dislikers” should give up, Gehl contends.
Dissenters have to work for it: they have to write out comments, start up a blog, seek out other dislikers. They are not lulled into slackivism or “clickivism,” replacing the work of activism with clicking “like” on a cause as if the sheer aggregate of sentiment will make someone somewhere change something.
Instead, frustrated dislikers must think through their negative affect and find ways to articulate it into networks of dislike. If dislike scares off brands, so be it. Brands aren’t going to fix the world’s problems – but the dislikers might.