The Meaning of Like

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One sure sign of adulthood is the urge to complain that the kids these days overuse the word “like.”  As in, “I was, like, working on my blog? And then I, like, got hungry? So, like, I, like, made, like, a, like, sandwich?”

[Stops clock, makes sandwich, eats, returns to blog]

But that’s not my problem.  The grownups who disrespect Like as an emptyheaded Valley Girl tic at best and the Decline of Western Civilization at worst tend to “Um” a lot themselves.  Same idea, and less endearing.  It helps the brain keep up with the mouth, which is not a generationally-specific problem. 

I even like “like” for “said.” As in:

“So then, she was like, I can’t believe it.  And I was like, Believe it.  And then she was like, No way.  And I was like, Fffyeah.” 

Here, “like” embodies the postmodern intersection where narrative collides with neurology.  Any attempt to recreate dialogue word for word becomes an artifice and fiction, limited by the teller’s cognitive constraints of language and memory.  “Like” provides healthy transparency; not “She said, ‘I can’t believe it,” but rather, “It was like—and I paraphrase, for I am only human and therefore limited by the margins of discourse and recall—she said, ‘I can’t believe it.’”

No.  It’s the Facebookization of Like—here, regarding something as enjoyable or pleasant—as an inadvertent philosophy of life, the way of viewing and assessing the world.  Online, Like turns from tepid tolerability—the way I think of the word—to the highest form of admiration.  In the absence of an actual comment—and many pages seem not to allow or encourage comments—Like is the only permissible form of praise at all.  It is not even a dichotomy—a twofold world of Like and Dislike.  There is no Dislike.  It’s not even Like or Ignore.  It is Like or nothing.   If you don’t have anything Like to say, you can’t say anything at all.  Some enterprising types can Like something and then click Unlike.  But Unlike [grumble not a real verb grumble] is no Dislike, and it reverts the former Like into ether, faint protest indeed. 

Unlike legions of Facebookers, though, I do prefer the absence of a Dislike button on Facebook.  That Manichean universe of Like and Dislike belongs to YouTube, whose green Likes and red Dislikes on any given clip represent a never-ending battle comparable to that of the Egyptian god Ra—symbolizing order—to prevent the dragon Apep—representing chaos—from devouring the sun every evening.     

Ra vs. Apep, for some reason

YouTube’s introduction of the serpent of Dislike into Facebook’s conflict-free Garden of Like has also had the effect of turning YouTube’s comment section into an Apep-like writhing snakepit of slurs, smears, and disparagement, not to mention aggressively ignorant racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and lunatic conspiracies theories, as documented here and on this video, where the poster was pretty much doing the Youtube equivalent of saying Voldemort’s name in his title—invoking the name and thereby  summoning attention and wrath:

It’s not like I want Facebook to go down this road.  But rather, I worry that, imperceptibly, a generation is being trained to think that the highest—and maybe the only—form of acclaim is Like.  Even Dislike—or the New York Times’ new Meh List—is still part of the limited Like spectrum.  But is Like all there is?  Aren’t there many other worthwhile reactions beyond and separate from the question of Like?

  • Should everyone take a trip to the Holocaust Museum?  Yes.  Is it fun?  Do you Like it?  These are simply the wrong questions to ask. 
  • I read—and just taught a class on—novels representing or responding to September 11, 2001. Do I like them?  Um, I guess.  But I’m interested in, and fascinated by, recent fiction’s attempt to create a narrative around fresh trauma, and in doing so, deliberately and dangerously making the day into something literary, even poetic.  It’s not about Like. 
  • I just watched 127 Hours.  Did I Like it?  It depends on what you mean by Like.  Did I enjoy watching James Franco cut off his own arm?  Drink his pee?  Sweat and hallucinate? Not so much.  The early scenes are filled with anticipation, anxiety, and dread, since the viewer experiences the dramatic irony of seeing Aaron (Franco’s character) forget his knife and not answer his mother’s phone call.  And the money shot of losing the arm—plus the post-op ending—are excruciating.  But it was brilliantly done, it made me feel things that a movie has never made me feel, and I’m glad I saw it. Like doesn’t even enter into it.
  • Do I Like Tabasco sauce?  Grilled asparagus?  Like John Zorn’s dissonance? Like William Faulkner’s or Gertrude Stein’s frequent impenetrability?  Like exercise, even though I always feel as though I’d rather be doing anything else?  Like repeating the same riff on the guitar a thousand times until I get it right?  Like writing? Sort of.  I guess.  If that’s my only choice.  But I relish all those experiences.

For that matter, would I click a Like button on Eating or Sleeping, as Facebook has often, to me absurdly, recommended, despite that both have millions of Likes?  As Nietzsche did not write, what lies beyond Good and Evil and Like?  Where is my Ambivalent button, with a thumb simultaneously up and down?  (I would use it on Henry James.)  Is it better to be feared than Liked, or Liked than loved, or Liked than feared? 

I fear that no matter how good it feels to Like, or be Liked, Like as sole criterion makes the world a little smaller and lot safer.   One measure of adulthood, then, is not whether you’re annoyed when kids say “like,” but rather that you can accept, even embrace, those complex, dangerous pleasures outside the very latitude of Like itself. 

P.S. Don’t forget to Like this post.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting the time wasted reading horrible YouTube comments.

And: I lied. I didn’t make the sandwich until after I finished.

And also: My thirteen year-old son Jonah designed the image at the top of this post. I think it took him more than one hour.  Thanks, Jonah.

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9 thoughts on “The Meaning of Like

  1. Aura says:

    Like, wait– Do you or do you not like grilled asparagus?

  2. jkavadlo says:

    Maybe instead of a Like button, everything needs all of the relationship status options. With me and grilled asparagus, It’s Complicated.

  3. David Abbott says:

    Also, since “Like” is the only action a Facebook user can take without taking the time to write a comment, I’ve seen it on more than one occasion lead to awkward and senseless moments of unintentional ghoulishness (i.e. a FB status such as “My grandmother just passed away. I miss her so much and I can’t stop crying.” followed by the inevitable “John Q. Facebook user likes this.”)

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, David. Yeah, that’s a whole other category of Like as simply the wrong way of thinking of something. People want to show support, I guess, but there’s no “I’m thinking about you” button. Although maybe that’s for the best.

  4. Johannes says:

    I also, like, like using non-facebook “like”–it makes me feel more native-speakerish.

    Someone once told me of a study which found that immediately after the Columbine shootings, the survivors, as they were supporting one another, dropped the youth culture speak, etc. As if this was a moment where directness of speech was needed.

    Following up on what you wrote about the modifying qualities of “like,” I’d say, there’s also a softening (maybe not the best word): “I’m depressed” vs. “I’m, like, depressed.”

    As to youtube–I always chuckle at the inevitable youtube comment along the lines of “24 people obviously missed the right button/must have been on drugs to click ‘dislike’.”

    I like it when people “like” my facebook posts–I feel, “Wow, they are acknowledging I exist; wonderful!”

    Johannes

  5. jkavadlo says:

    Yes, “like” does soften, usually in a good way, similar to “kind of” and “sort of,” ie “It’s sort of a big deal”=”I think it’s a big deal but don’t want to be a jerk about it.” And yes, maybe instead of Facebook’s Like, we need a a wordless symbol that just conveys something along the lines of “I acknowledge what you are saying.” That symbol would come in handy for face to face conversations and classroom discussions, too.

  6. Mim Murray says:

    I know what you mean about Henry James…

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