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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Make Love, Not Like

Why the internet is bleeding you dry



The internet, that platform of hope and possibility, that bold vision of a bright future, has drawn its first blood. Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan leader, died last year because this digital platform allowed the oppressed people of Libya to find their voice. Barely 30-years-old, the World Wide Web helped quash a regime that predated it by over a decade.

Across Northern Africa, crimson stains on roads and buildings mark corporeal transitions; where 140-character Twitter bursts became high-calibre mortar blasts. Egypt and Tunisia. Libya and Syria. In these countries the internet has landed like a weapon, making possible for its citizens to express and enact their passion.

But the internet’s victims are not always as obvious, nor its users so galvanised. In 2012 we stand at the deathbed of a less definable casualty. Stricken by the Western appetite for innovation, efficiency and speed, romanticism—that inalienable je ne sais quoi—is in terminal decline.

With Google Maps in every third person’s pocket it is impossible to find yourself tantalisingly lost, however hard you try. It is likely that you will field far more correspondence delivered digitally than you will by anyone’s hand. You are more likely to read news headlines from an online vendor more notable for the effrontery of its name (“Stuff”) than its content.

If one wanted to scapegoat a particular aspect of this new internet culture, you could do worse than blame one rather unassuming, four-lettered word: like.

Never has meaning been so betrayed by a single word, nor so much attention paid one. The definition of the word’s most recent colloquial adaptation perfectly describes vast swathes of the digital vessel on which it has become so ubiquitous: meaningless filler.

If there is a more bland and vapid sentiment than “like” in our contemporary lexicon then I have yet to be made aware of it. As an accurate and nuanced portrayal of one’s feelings and motivations, like competes with the acronym RIP for laziest shorthand; with the adjective nice for sheer insipidity; and with the concept of copyright for plain meaninglessness in this modern age.

In a recent court case in Virginia, six people sued their former employer, Hampton Sheriff B J Roberts, for unfair dismissal. Roberts cited his staff members’ support for his opponent in the 2009 election as his reason for the sackings. His evidence included the claim that one of the six had liked the Facebook page of opponent Jim Adams.

US law permits public employees to speak openly on matters that are of public concern. The district judge ruled that clicking the “like” button on Facebook amounts to a gesture that is broader and more symbolic than expressive speech. He permitted the sheriff’s right to sack his staff in the understanding that liking something on Facebook was a more significant act than an individual’s own speech.

Given the ease and frequency of the gesture, surely the opposite is the case?

American author Jonathan Franzen is deeply sceptical of the changes being rendered in society by technological advancement and increasingly digital lifestyles. His stance is somewhat of an impassioned soapbox-mounted plea to reinforce the models of living which facilitate the more vital qualities of being human: thinking and feeling.

Franzen suggests that the verb “to like” is transforming, courtesy of Facebook, “from a state of mind to an action that you can perform with your computer mouse; from a feeling to an assertion of a consumer choice.”

The pursuit of expediency is in danger of eroding our very humanity. As a facilitator of free speech, the internet should be applauded. Let’s hope it doesn’t cost us our desire to actually want to. ▲


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