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Illustration by Alreem AlAbbas

What Does It Even Mean to Like These Days?

When a ‘like’ can mean anything, how can we navigate the complex web of social media engagement?

Apr 1, 2024

One of the first things I do as I wake up is to like something. Opening up any social media platform, we are faced with the continuous and relentless stream of information and creative content with which we are now programmed to engage in particular ways: like, share, comment, subscribe. Some platforms have even created funds with which they compensate content creators based on their status, which can be the number of followers they have or, most prominently, the number of likes.
Likes are perhaps the most important form of engagement, despite also being the easiest one to show. Or maybe because of that. While the algorithm might place more weight on other actions, such as sharing or commenting, likes are amassed more quickly and gain more traction for a certain post. That being said, social movements use these features of the social media platforms to reach further than their followers and gain the support of more people outside of their direct outreach circle.
What is this content that we like? It is books, recipes, music, jokes, skits. It is also gore, war scenes, people in distress, animal abuse, and many more horrifying images of the worst of our world. But we must “like” them, otherwise, they will fall into the corners of the social media platforms, outside of the scope of our attention and also of our ability to do something to remedy these issues.
Now, here lies my problem with “liking” something disturbing on the internet – I do not really like it. I despise it. I fear it. I am unable to look away from it. The importance of spreading awareness on issues related to the climate crisis, to humanitarian crises around the globe and to socio-political movements for the rights of minorities is not lost on me. I will continue to engage with all of the relevant content in all the ways the algorithm demands. However, I am not sure how I feel about being complicit in making violence and suffering flood the landing page of my peers or even strangers.
There is something almost villainous in the way social media platforms demand of us to send each other unsettling and perturbing content. If we do not, they will only promote the sugar and spice and everything nice with advertisements and sponsored creator posts. Some people use their accounts to earn their living, like artsy jewelers and independent bookstores, even semi-professional athletes. So there is enough other content to interact with, enough to be distracted by. Social media is a diversion and political systems can manipulate it well to suit their agendas. Think back to the 2016 United States Presidential elections and the undoubted influence of Facebook on the final results and the ascent of Trump as President of the U.S.: the people that could be persuaded to vote for him received all the promotional materials, and those who could be influenced to skip voting altogether were distracted by other types of content. It is easy to get lost and to be forced not to care. Information overload is not to be undermined in this regard.
So, the issue remains. I must “like” everything I despise. I have done it for so long now that it has completely warped my sense of what it means to like in real life. It is as if the word has lost all its meaning and has become a political statement instead. I am often left unable to express how I feel about even the smallest of things in my daily life because the words I can use seem at the same time performative and loaded. Especially when it comes to actually liking something. Every time I say a sentence beginning with the phrase “I like…”, my brain digs up the last image of raging war I “liked” on Instagram about 5 minutes prior. The meaning of “likes” on social media has become equally important and valid in my mind as the actual definition and feeling of the word. And I worry about that. A lot and often. I worry that it was that easy for social media to permanently alter my life outside of it. The lines between reality and the internet domain have already been blurred simply because of the easy access to any and all information and the constant flow of it, not to mention the attempts to bring virtual reality projects into our internet experience. It has also been no secret that there are [lasting psychological effects of receiving only positive feedback](What the brain ‘Likes’: neural correlates of providing feedback on social media - PMC ( on social media, namely that it leads to a form of addiction similar to substance use. However, I find it unsettling that the functions of the social media algorithms intertwine with the meanings of our actions outside of them as a result of being chronically online.
It is not like I will stop engaging with the content that matters and that can actually bring much needed support to all kinds of social movements in real life. But it will never feel easy to “like” the suffering of a child, to “share” the already too invasive content of a family being separated, and to “subscribe” to the project of spreading images of violence with the faint hope of convincing those in power they need to stop looking away and take responsibility for the damage done to all of our lives.
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email them at
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