Liking a post and favoriting a tweet serve as excellent examples of the complexity of life that is out of our control in ways that we often don’t realize. The meaning of liking, favoriting, etc., clearly shifts depending on the context. Sometimes clicking the star or thumbs up literally means that I like something; sometimes I want to say that I hear you, acknowledging someone’s comment or post. This varied meaning is true throughout language. Words and symbols have a range of meanings that also can shift radically over time and place (a computer used to mean “one who computes;” a Swastika is a positive symbol in multiple cultures today). That simple click (like other forms of communication) has other complexities, too, that illustrate the lack of control that any of us have.
Anyone who sees a thumbs up or star may interpret them in ways that differ from what the original producer meant. We cannot control what someone takes our words and actions to mean. Recognizing the social in social media, many people often take this into account when they decide how to respond online.“What will others think?” A significant dilemma arises when someone shares bad news or their fight against something negative. Do you hit like to acknowledge reading about it or to show solidarity and caring? People frequently consider how others may interpret things in relation to all sorts of communication, although we don’t always have a clear perception of this. So, knowing that the meaning is out of our control influences what we say and do.
This lack of control over the meaning of our actions, though, gets more complicated as it intersects with the systems that operate our world. Various social media platforms, for example, use algorithms that determine what we see, taking into account actions that we as the users take (hitting the like button, shopping online, etc.). One person’s experience with liking everything that he saw illustrates the power of the algorithms to dictate what we notice.
So, sometimes I hit the thumbs up or star to encourage the algorithms to continue to put similar items in my feed. How much good this does is hard to tell, as the work of these larger systems is hidden. This basis for liking something further complicates that notion of the meaning of that click, as we effectively operate both within our social system of friends and acquaintances (thus taking into account how they will interpret our words and actions) and larger systems of control.
Such functioning in multiple systems happens throughout life. What we see or hear on the news, watch on television or Netflix, and buy involve us in intersecting systems. While we consider our choices based on our interests and the social world that we navigate (What do you mean you did not watch the Mad Men finale?), it is easy to overlook the larger systems determining our options. We can attempt to influence these systems in ways similar to liking something to influence the algorithm. We can choose to patronize or boycott a company based on a policy or practice that we either support or oppose. Such choices involve our social networks and peer pressure as well as efforts to influence the larger system. But that influence, like an effort to control the algorithms, is quite limited. We often know little about the policies and practices of many companies.
Technology and the internet have provided a whole ranges of choices that we never had before (I remember when I could count our TV stations on my fingers.). Yet, we still have limited choice about what companies we patronize, what things the media shows us, and how others interpret our choices, practices, and likes. Much of what we experience is out of our control.
Image credit, via Pixabay CC0-Public Domain