Inappropriate liking

On a recent Tuesday morning at UI16 Kevin Hoffman, from Happy Cog, gave a talk on strategies for successful discovery meetings (not as boring as it sounds). As an example, he referenced the work his team recently did for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. He described the many meetings they facilitated, which ones worked and why. And then without a pause, a beat, or a breath, he asked the crowded room, Does anyone remember that warehouse scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Yes, I thought, but what a strange question. My brain instantly conjured the sight of that vast and gloomy warehouse where the government men leave the Ark of the Covenant to collect dust among thousands upon thousands of unmarked crates and boxes. That’s a real warehouse, Kevin said. It’s in Linthicum, Maryland. It’s where the USHMM stores the artifacts and evidence documenting the Holocaust.

It felt like the air was sucked out of the room. For a second that lasted an eternity, no one moved. No one spoke. No one breathed. And then, Kevin continued speaking. I have no idea what he said next. I missed the next five minutes of his talk while my brain processed this highly affecting and unexpected fact. My thoughts sounded something like this. That can’t be true. Please say that’s not true. I don’t want it to be true. He wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. Oh my god. I wish I didn’t know that. Why don’t more people know that? Everyone should know that. Those crazy Holocaust deniers should know that. That fact—the image in my head right now—would shut them up for good.

As the goose bumps subsided, the thoughts that followed were a jumble. I thought about all the crazy things we learn as Web designers. I was relieved I wasn’t on the project. (Ten minutes earlier I wished I was.) I imagined myself at the discovery meeting or field trip to the warehouse. I imagined myself sobbing uncontrollably. I also thought about how difficult it must be for Kevin to have this knowledge. And I wondered what I would do with it. I would tell everyone I knew. I would work it into every conversation, just as he did, just as I am doing know.

Two days later, I posted it to Facebook. I wanted this fact to go out into the world, all 175 of my closest friends and relatives. (Yes, my Facebook friend list is intentionally short.) Here’s the thing though. I didn’t expect the post to generate any sort of conversation. I did not expect a single comment or Like. It’s not the kind of fact that people should Like. And what could my friends say? I didn’t ask a question or leave room for conversation. I just put it out there.

This is what makes the Like button so great—and so inappropriate in this case. It has turned that old adage on its head. We used to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Now, if you have warm feelings toward a thought or conversation but don’t have anything to say, you can Like it and move on. Conversely, if one of my friends says something of interest, I let it sink into my brain. But I don’t Like it if the content is not likable, i.e, happy, positive, friendly. I also don’t comment on it if the post speaks for itself or if someone else has expressed what I wanted to say. The Like button is to register your approval of the content, not the person posting the content.

Here’s the distinction I am making. Wait, Steve Pordigal said it better than I can. When speaking about culture and cultural norms, he said, there’s a difference between knowing about something and liking it.  By way of example, he projected two photos on the big screen. One was of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame, and the other was of pop music sensation Justin Bieber. I recognized the photo of Justin Bieber, but I like Julian Assange. Knowing and liking: not the same thing.

So back to my Holocaust fact: I didn’t expect comments or Likes. It was the kind of post that gives you the shivers. It registers deep in the emotional parts of your brain. And then you move on, because there is nothing likable about it.

Later that evening I received one comment and one Like. The comment was spot on. A friend said, “Wow. Just got the chills reading that!” I replied, “I believe chilling is the right word.” We shared an emotional response. There was nothing else to say. A couple of hours later, one of my crazy aunts Liked the post. And I immediately kicked off a rant in Mr Snarky’s direction that sounded something like this, “How could she…? Doesn’t she…? What the f…?”

The edited version sounds something like this. I have serial Likers in my life. They generally consist of middle age women who love me, who I don’t see very often. They are very well-intentioned, unsophisticated consumers of the Web.

I want them to stop. I want them to cease and desist all this inappropriate liking. Before you think I’m mean, hear me out.

First, Liking a post about the Holocaust—any post, in any context—is totally and completely inappropriate, unless that post says, “Let’s make sure that never happens again.”

Second, the button says, “Like.” Liking expresses a sense of enjoyment. It is not an acknowledgment that you’ve read and understand what I am saying. You are not accepting terms and conditions. You are acknowledging the post as likeable, i.e., favorable, positive, good. It’s not a sarcastic Like; it is not an Ironic Awesome button. It’s for genuine liking. Before clicking Like, I expect you to read the post, let the words register deep in your brain, and let your reaction bubble to the surface. I took the time to write it and put it out there for my Facebook world to read. Please take the time to be thoughtful in your reply. Don’t just hit Like because I posted something on a day that ends in y.

Finally, I know they love me. I wouldn’t be friends with them on Facebook (or at all) if I didn’t know they loved me and reciprocated those feelings. That’s what the Facebook friendship represents: public acknowledgment that they are part of my life, and I like that fact. The Like button is not there to advertise that. It’s for liking a particular post. It says, “I like this specific thing that you said.” It does not say, “I generally approve of everything you say and do.”

In the immortal words of Anonymous (no, not Shakespeare), “hate the game, not the player.” Or in this case, Like the content—if and only if it is likeable—not its contributor.

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