Productive Questions as Critical Thinking                


1.  Is the pursuit of “likes” on social media anything more than a reflection of human loneliness?

2.  Are there thoughtful justifications for the pursuit of “likes”?

3.  Why do these questions matter?

Listening to my students and paying moderate attention to popular culture has sensitized me to the widespread desire to compete for “likes” on social media. That enterprise puzzles me because observation suggests that one can earn more “likes” by posting a mildly humorous picture of a stray cat or by changing a profile picture than I ever could garner by a calm, reasoned and balanced post about nuclear proliferation among non-state entities.

Why would one place any value on an accolade that could mean almost anything, often from people whose criteria for applauding you are largely hidden? Imagine a community of people whose judgment I have limited respect for.  Would I wallow in their liking what I said or did? Or would I simply think to myself that anyone astute enough to be attached to my social media posts has thereby demonstrated acuity of judgment?

Contrast how we would all feel about the respect we are given by people we know to be mentally adroit, compassionate, and wise. Now there are some “likes” I want in droves.

Are so many of us simply lonely?  Does all mail become good mail? Does every “like” elevate our sense of belonging to a tribe, at least some vague tribe?

Or do we have such an elevated self-assessment that any collection of “likes” is earned affirmation. We might think “well, it’s about time that the world noticed my excellence, or as someone we all know puts it “my stable genius.”

But I am reminded that for some people the accumulation of “likes” is a commercial activity.  If I am packing a reputation that earned tens of thousands of “likes”, then my “brand” has worth in a market culture. Associating my name with a product or service may herald spikes in sales of the product fortunate enough to be linked to me. At least I understand that rationale. I can imagine that my next book proposal would experience a major boost, if I could claim massive likes on my social media sites. Maybe the collection of “likes” is something like the purchase of a lottery ticket—a long shot, but if I get lucky, the payoff is huge.

Who cares?  I think we all should care. “Likes” and “You are mean.” are invitations to a conversation. We need to know more about the basis for those ratings so that we can decide to continue or alter our behavior. Should we not humbly accept some “likes” and ignore comments about our meanness if we have any sense that the critique misconstrues behavior that is kind in the long run and uncomfortable in the short run?

 Acquiring “likes” and avoiding any and all assessments that we are being mean is incredibly time consuming. In addition, it is somewhat pathetic in that we accept assessments by others while knowing precious little about how much or how little knowledge or thought resides underneath the evaluations.

As a professor, I witness hour of calculation by students dedicated to never displeasing others. Their independence from groupthink is complicated. Speak with them individually, and they are quite opinionated about important questions.  But in a group inside or outside of class, they want to please whatever group is present. They seem to live in fear that they would be rejected by someone in their vicinity. I doubt that I need to point out how frightening this behavior is.

1.  Is loneliness so extensive or significant a factor in some people’s lives that avenues for publicly collecting these votes of approval should be encouraged?

2.  Is there so much discomfort in life that collecting “likes” is a needed palliative?

3.  Are humans seemingly so hard-wired to dichotomize that we do not know how to teach one another that the opposite of “mean” is not necessarily a “like-generating” set of behaviors?

AuthorM Neil Browne