Dr. Boli will probably not be adding a Like button for posts and comments. This decision is partly because of and partly in spite of yesterday’s informal poll, and partly because of Dr. Boli’s own preference for, amounting almost to an obsession with, simplicity. The Like button would require a plugin, another whole piece of software to add a function to the already bloated software that sits on the server and serves up these articles.
Instead, our readers will have to use words: “I like this comment,” or something similar, would be a good formula.
But the question of the Like button brings up the larger question of why such things have become so ubiquitous in the first place. It is not just “like” buttons. Your email provider will helpfully suggest replies to email messages, thus sparing you the trouble of putting your thoughts in words. (“Thanks for the heads up.” “No problem, I understand.” “Ugh.” Those were the three suggested replies to the last email message in Dr. Boli’s inbox.) Ultimately, of course, the goal is to spare us the trouble of having thoughts in the first place: those will be provided to us along with the proper emojis to express them.
We use these helps because they are helpful. Most people interact with the vast world of the Internet from a tiny phone screen. It is not easy to type on that screen, though some people become fairly good at it; it is much easier just to tap the button (“Ugh”) that most closely matches what we would say if we said anything, or to choose the vomiting-face emoji, or to press the Like button. From the point of view of the providers of Internet services, the difficulty of using the keyboard to express original thoughts is, as they say at Apple, a feature, not a bug. It encourages us to push buttons, which encourages us to think the thoughts we are supposed to think and be the people we are supposed to be. The fact that the Like button increments the “Like” count works on the tribal foundations of human psychology, herding us into herds of like-minded likers.
After a while, these actions become automatic, the way an addict’s drinking becomes automatic. “And by now I’ve been on Twitter long enough,” said our frequent correspondent Martin the Mess, “that I break out in a cold sweat every time I see something clever or funny and I can’t find a Like button to click in appreciation.”
Twitter shows us the ideal future from the point of view of the social-media robber barons. Everyone who does not completely agree with Elon Musk’s politics (and a goodly number of those who do) believes that Musk has made Twitter worse. At least we can agree that the members of the leftward half of the political spectrum are almost unanimous in their condemnation of Musk’s X. But they are still there. They cannot think of an alternative. Nobody knows how to get on Mastodon; Truth Social is a liturgical site devoted to the rituals associated with the worship of the messiah Trump; and as for Facebook’s Twitter-killer, the best we can say is that it has not yet landed a good shot with its sling. If the people who condemn X left X, they would be finished as social communicators. They would no longer have any outlet through which to express their condemnation.
This is what the providers of our social media aspire to. They want us to be so completely dependent on them for distributing our thoughts, and ultimately for providing our thoughts, that they can do anything to us, and we still will not leave. Elon Musk taunts his left-wing users, often personally, like a fifth-grade bully, and they still use his service. He could walk into their houses and slap their faces, and the only response they could think of would be an angry tweet. The robber baron wins. We lose.
So what is the alternative? The alternative is not to care, which for a “creative” also implies being rich. If you can inherit enough money, or earn enough by honest or dishonest labor in your youth, that you do not depend for your bread on how many people your message reaches, then you can avoid social media altogether. Dr. Boli has taken this high road. He has never had an account on Twitter, much as people have urged him to join the twenty-first century. He does not rely on this Magazine for his income. The Publishing Empire funds the online media empire with very little left over, and even if it did not, Dr. Boli and his household staff would not starve.
For the “creative” types who have not yet found the magic formula to turn lead into gold, there is always manual labor. That may be the only kind of labor available to human beings a decade from now, as artificial intelligence gradually absorbs all our mental work and applies all the worst habits it has learned from us to making our perfect entertainment. We can help bring about that utopian future by accepting all its suggestions now.
But meanwhile, what about those sharing buttons at the bottoms of the articles in this Magazine? They work unpredictably in different browsers and operating systems, and Dr. Boli is thinking of getting rid of them. Does anyone need or use them?