Addicted to Likes: How Social Media Feeds Our Neediness

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A self-centered man joined Instagram and ran into a problem: Since he neither looked at nor “liked” his friends’ posts, they thought he was snubbing them. “I am only on Instagram or Facebook to humblebrag,” Rameet Chawla told the Daily Dot. “I don’t consume other people’s information.” So Chawla, a programmer, created a bot that would crawl his feed and automatically like every single picture that every single person he followed posted. The result: He became incredibly popular on Instagram. His follower count rocketed. His pictures were liked more often. He became so Insta-famous, someone stopped him on the street to commend his Insta-magnificence.

“I think people give too much value to the like,” he concluded. “People are addicted. We experience withdrawals. We are so driven by this drug, getting just one hit elicits truly peculiar reactions.” He compared the experience of watching a social-media post rocket in popularity to smoking crack cocaine.

The metaphor may be dramatic, but it is also strangely common. “What looks like — and perhaps started as — vanity showmanship is now a deep desire for validation,” Ford’s 2014 consumer trend report theorized, pointing to 62 percent of adults worldwide who report better self-esteem after positive social-media feedback. “Our online persona is needier than our real one,” The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Gara concluded. Two weeks ago, Thailand’s Department of Mental Health issued a warning about young-adult addiction to likes — and the deleterious effect un-liked selfies can have on like-addicts’ minds:

If they don’t get enough ‘likes’ for their selfie as expected, they decide to post another, but still do not receive a good response. This could affect their thoughts. They can lose self-confidence and have a negative attitude toward themselves, such as feeling dissatisfied with themselves or their body. … This could affect the development of the country in the future as the number of new-generation leaders will fall short. It will hinder the country’s creativity and innovation.

“I check my Twitter interactions constantly,” a friend who works in digital media recently confessed. “I have push notifications on my phone for RTs and favs until 1 a.m., at which point TweetBot is programmed not to vibrate again until 7 a.m. It has to be creating a Pavlovian response in me.” If Pavlov’s dogs drool at the sound of a bell, what does a like-addict do when his phone buzzes? “Well, reach for the phone, obviously. But there has to be a dopamine receptor going off in there, too.”

As soon as he tweets something, he toggles over to the “interactions” column of TweetDeck to watch for immediate responses. “It’s a habit: tweet, scroll over, see how long it takes to get some love.” And if nobody loves his tweet? “Definite sense of disappointment. And if there’s an immediate reaction, there’s a sense of — shudder — accomplishment.” He remembered his most popular tweets fondly, immediately providing the hyperlink to a newsy joke that earned 1,042 retweets and 444 favorites. (A visit to MyTopTweet.com confirmed it as a personal best.) “I was actually stoned and wrote that tweet without thinking,” he lamented. The revelation that everyone liked him better on drugs was bewildering — and not unlike the insecurity spiral experienced by any high schooler who has toked once or twice with the cool kids, and spent the rest of sophomore year trying to replicate the experience.

“I rarely use hashtags,” another friend confessed, “but one day I randomly used one, and it started to get all these favorites and RTs from strangers and I felt like I cracked some code. And it felt good!” Over the course of an hour, he estimates he checked that tweet’s retweet and favorite counts “more than 10” times, scrolling through the list of retweeter and favoriters and marveling at their names, avatars, and follower counts. As the tweet arrived at peak popularity (52 retweets and 52 favorites) “I got a rush.” He likened it to getting three stars on an Angry Birds level.

Everyone I spoke to about like addiction professed to feelings of shame — then deflected their shame by naming addicts they believed to be even worse off than themselves. “You know who’s worse?” the man with 52 retweets said. “Fucking mid-level standup comics. I mean, they live and die by their tweets, more than anyone I’ve ever met. Even professional social-media strategists.” He recounted the tale of a comedian with a four-figure follower count who “felt like an abject failure watching the Rob Delaneys of the world seeming to turn into Richard Pryor through Twitter.” Eventually, the comedian resorted to emailing “test tweets” to friends. “Like, a choice of three observations. Ask me which one I’d laugh about most. Which one I’d think other people would laugh at.”

“Wow. That is amazing,” I replied, then recounted stories of people distributing links to tweets and Facebook posts, requesting likes to “get the momentum going.” This is a relatively common practice — particularly in workplaces supported by page-views or controlled by outcome-obsessed bosses — and yet it remains an utterly humiliating enterprise. Joining a concerted social-media liking effort is like being an energetic ugly girl running a losing campaign for Homecoming Queen. You know the prettier girls are going to beat you, and when they do so effortlessly, you will feel uglier and more alone than ever before.

Does loneliness play a role in like addiction? After a breakup, one friend noted, “I was tweeting the things I normally would have texted. All the, ‘Hey here’s a random picture of a dude picking his nose.’ Instead of texting it, I put it on Twitter.” Among the greatest vacuums created by the loss of a significant other is communication — losing the person you shared every trial, tribulation, and nose-picking picture with creates a void for social media to fill. Likewise, when a single person enters a relationship, her rate of Facebook interactions declines steadily, Facebook’s Data Science group recently found. What’s more, the remaining interactions are more likely to express positive emotions — like “love,” “nice,” and “happy” — than negative ones — like “hate,” “hurt,” and “bad.” Social media may be a haven for the lonely — the feedback of acquaintances and strangers, their solace.

Of course, the rule is not without exceptions. When I tracked my rate of tweets in the last six months via Twitalyzer, I found that my tweets screeched to a halt following a breakup, then bounced back when I was happy with my love life. I assume this is because there are a thousand ways to flaunt happiness on social media, but fewer for expressing defeat; whereas humblebrags downplay moments of pride, there is no corollary term for softening the wail of bottomless sorrow. Then again, perhaps the difference between silence and chattiness during a breakup is some sort of essential character trait — the difference between a depressed person who lies listlessly in bed doing nothing, and a Sylvia Plath type who writes exquisite poetry of aching brilliance in her darkest hour. I have always hated bitches who could do that. I bet they got more votes than I did for Homecoming Queen, too.

Last night a male friend told me about an ex-girlfriend from years ago who still texts asking “Can you RT?” about work-related promotions. He always says no.

“WAIT BUT DIDN’T YOU DUMP HER?” I cried. “How can you resist the guilt? I mean, I feel so sad and ashamed just seeing the phrase ‘Can you RT?’ that I feel like I’d do anything just to make the words go away.” Because shameful as like addiction is, who among us has never experienced the desire to be liked, really liked, just a little bit more than usual, just this once? Or the horrible emptiness of having once been liked, and then facing something far worse than dislike — indifference.