Dirt: Like Inflation
Hearts are meaningless.
Kyle Chayka on what we talk about when we talk about likes.
Inflation is a huge problem these days. I’m not talking about economic inflation, the pandemic-Russia-war-stimulus-whatever induced rise in the prices of common goods. Instead it’s Like Inflation: a single like on the internet just doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to. Much like our monetary problems, there are now too many ways to like posts, and that degrades the value of each individual like.
I first observed Like Inflation on Instagram. The effect became blatant when the platform added the ability to like Instagram Stories. People hitting the heart button on the bottom of your Stories now gets incorporated in to your Activity feed, the same as it does when someone likes your grid Post (which is referred to in the feed as a “photo”). Until that change, one thing that separated Stories from Posts was the fact that you couldn’t Like them. You could see who watched them, and get an algorithmic hint at who watched your Stories most often, but there wasn’t a particular metric by which to judge them. Stories were actually ephemeral — the people you cared about might respond with a message, if anything.
That changed when you could react to Stories with emoji shortcuts, and now Likes. I personally do not want anyone to Like my Instagram Stories. Likes are for Posts! That’s just where they make sense. Now, we’re forced to wonder which counts for more: a Story Like or a Post Like? Is it better to Like a Story or to react to it with an emoji? What is the point of Liking it in the first place? Shouldn’t we just give up Likes altogether and simply experience things? In the past, a Like was a discrete action, a way to send a nice little positive signal. Facebook Likes were the original currency of the social-media era. Now it’s just a small part of the overall noise. The signal is lost.
Twitter also made a recent Like-related interface update. One day, the familiar hearts on my app were replaced by arrows going up and down on replies to my tweets. This was not explained; it simply happened. The feature looks like Reddit’s upvoting and downvoting, which is used to sort good posts from bad. We all know that every post on Twitter is terrible, however, and many tweets are good because they are terrible. Am I supposed to now upvote shitposts and downvote people disagreeing with my tweets, which are admittedly bad? This feels like trying to turn the generic Like into an entire system for evaluating content, which Twitter has always mercifully lacked. Presumably, the most upvoted replies will show up at the top of the list. No one wants this. We come to Twitter for garbage, not logic.
Dirt's co-founder Kyle Chayka is working on a book called Filterworld, about the influence of algorithmic feeds and digital platforms on culture. For the book, Kyle made a new survey to explore our relationship to algorithms, with questions about uncanny recommendations and if the internet now feels more algorithmic than it did a few years ago. (For more info see Kyle's personal newsletter.) The nine-question survey is anonymous if you don't add your name, and is relevant for both creators and consumers of content. Every response is helpful!
Remember the old days, when a Like really meant something? Like, you were communicating your crush on the poster, you were alerting someone that you saw something — or studiously not alerting them. Now, social media is more nakedly a surveillance panopticon, and we don’t need to actually Like anything for the algorithm to gauge whether or not we’re engaging with a piece of content. On TikTok, you passively Like with your eyeballs and your failure to swipe upward to move on to the next piece of content. Instead of authentic Like or Dislike, based on conscious intention, content is evaluated simply in terms of attention being paid, an on or off state.
Likes on TikTok comments have become yet another form of currency. To be honest, TikTok comments might actually be my favorite part of the internet right now, a home for niche jokes and extreme content-specificity. You have to watch the video, and watch many TikTok videos, for the comments to be that funny.
I’ve only left a few TikTok comments, but I’m proud when they net a few Likes, which pop up in my Inbox feed. Still, I feel kind of embarrassed for myself that I still want Likes after all this time, after I’ve already seen Instagram Likes fade into meaninglessness. We can now Like anything, and thus we are forced to collect Likes on everything. — Kyle Chayka