It’s easy to associate Facebook’s ubiquitous blue thumbs-up with everything we fear about the digital age. It can symbolize our shallow desire for social approval (we don’t even want to be liked anymore, we’ll settle for being liked on Facebook!) or maybe a reduction of social interaction to clicking and tapping. Not only that, we find ourselves hearing and sometimes speaking sentences such as, “You should ‘Like’ Think Christian on Facebook!” (which you should do by the way). We’re a little uncomfortable with someone asking, literally, to be liked.
A recent Slate article, though, had me rethinking my mild loathing of that little button, and my own frequent use of it. In the story Torie Bosch explains, “At its lightweight heart, pushing the button really says ‘I hear you,’ ‘Uh-huh,’ ‘I acknowledge this’ or ‘Yup.’ It says, ‘I read this and thought about it for a second.’”
When we talked about the article in one of my classes, students agreed that they had used the button in all of these ways. One student said that for some friends, she’ll push the button on every post they make. When I think about it, I realize I do the same thing. I use the button the same way we use nonverbal feedback in person. Sometimes when someone is talking, especially in a group situation (which in many ways Facebook imitates), you don’t respond verbally because you don’t have much to add or say. Instead you respond with nonverbal signals that you are paying attention, you understand or maybe you agree. You give a nod of the head, a smile, a quiet mmm-hmm.
Now, certainly, if all of your social interaction consisted of head-nods, waves and thumbs-up icons, you’d have an impoverished social world. But I don’t think that’s what we do online or in real life. I think the “Like” button gives us more opportunities for the everyday small ways to say to others that they are loved, valued and children of God. Christians will often praise the value of a smile or a hello to a stranger or friend. I am starting to wonder if the “Like” button is the equivalent of that smile online. It acknowledges someone else’s humanity. Even if we don’t actually like whatever they posted, what we are really saying is “I like you.”
This balance is probably what Shauna Niequist is getting at in a recent Relevant post. She argues for deep interpersonal relationships, where we are willing to reveal the parts of our life we wouldn’t brag about on Instagram. I agree with her that these relationships are essential for everyone, but especially those who hope to live in Christian community.
However, let’s stay away from an all-or-nothing framework about the depth of our relationships and interactions. Lightweight interactions are not meaningless and distant friendships have value. They can never replace a few close relationships, but it is often through showing kindness to people who are distant or different that we learn the most. The group of people I might say hello to on a sidewalk or smile at in a checkout line is much more diverse than those I know best. And that variety is a good thing.
Keeping more people in my online circle of interaction matters too. And one way I can represent to them that they matter is by pushing the “Like” button. So like away - when you see the image of God in a classmate’s new baby or when a former coworker just ran her first 5K. Affirmation is a gift from God - let’s share it generously!