In just under two years, irrepressibly giddy French millennial Jerome Jarre has amassed just over 8 million followers on the social media platform Vine with his puckish, vaguely inspirational six-second videos (a typical title: “Laughing is the real international language”). Jarre’s complete works have over a billion “loops,” or views, a number that has led even A-listers like Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller to seek partnerships.
By contrast, The Great Gatsby sold 21,000 copies on first publication; Moby Dick’s initial British edition, less than 500. Yet today the perennial debate over the Great American Novel essentially comes down to these two works.
How can we possibly compare an epic novel to a six-second video titled “How to get a little kiss from Anna Wintour”? Sure, any one of Jarre’s videos has been seen by far more people in the past few months than may ever read Melville’s masterpiece, but if asked which has had the greater impact, you wouldn’t have to think too hard. The difference between them is painfully apparent yet wholly lost if you reduce both to a number.
But, in a way, that’s exactly what we do when we click Facebook’s Like button or its more respectable relatives, the Favorite and the Retweet. These tools have come to shape our cultural communication in ways we dare not acknowledge. They seem innocuous in their mild usefulness. But in reducing approval to binary opposition, the Like has helped the captains of digital media rebrand culture as “content” that cascades over us in infinite, overwhelming digital waterfalls.
And what do we mean when we bestow a Like or a Favorite? Do we approve, agree, support? Does something that challenges you, upsets you, or confuses you also deserve a Like? The problem with rendering verdicts is that finality constrains thought.
A Like begets things made specifically to be Liked. Ergo click-bait. The advertising dollars aggregating around infectiously Likeable new media stars, like Mr. Jarre, incentivize eager copycats, initiating the same feedback loop that leads motion picture studios to wallow in a monoculture of regurgitated material.
Anything truly worthwhile on some level challenges us. But the tyranny of the Like silences the valuable forces of confusion, disagreement, and disturbance. Likes are mere signifiers of quantity, not guarantors of quality. What they really tell us is the exact value of the denominator in “lowest common denominator.”