Recently, a Crave freelancer pinged me to lament that no one liked him anymore. I felt sad for him, until he explained that it wasn't that nobody liked him anymore, it was that nobody "Liked" him anymore.
The number displayed on the Facebook Like button on his CNET author profile, it turned out, had spontaneously reset itself from 300-plus to one. I posited that a temporary technical glitch had caused the change and, with a wink and a smile (of the emoticon variety) assured him that his stories continued to generate copious reader interest and I planned to keep him on as a Crave writer until he was at least 80.
Clearly caught in that murky vortex where the real-world and digital selves intersect, the writer seemed a bit irked by the mishap. But as these things go in the world of third-party algorithms, his original Like number reappeared just as randomly as it had disappeared.
I, for one, found the episode amusing. Until a few weeks later, when my own Like number started fluctuating wildly.
One minute--were one to assign meaning to such things--the number at the bottom of my stories might be interpreted to indicate that only my first cousins cared to follow my work, the next that I might have a stab at being the next Walt Mossberg.
CNET's social-networking guru blamed the jumpy numbers on a pesky symbol contained in the URL of my author profile. A new URL was the only way to fix the problem once and for all, he said, though doing so would automatically reset my Like count to zero. It sounded a bit like having to suddenly move and make new friends, but I told him to go for it.
At first, I didn't pay much attention to my newly nonexistent Like count (after all, I'd told my fellow writer not to give it a second thought when his numbers went poof). But when I mentioned the situation to a social-networking-savvy co-worker, he looked at me with a sad-eyed empathy that made me rethink the gravity of being so un-Liked in 2011. "Man, that sucks," he frowned. "You've been robbed."
The more I thought about it, the more I thought he might be right. But, torn between the part of me that understands that 10,000 virtual friends do not one real friend make and the part of me that's flattered to be Liked and retweeted, I couldn't quite figure out what, exactly, I'd been robbed of.
Presumably, at least some of the people who had Liked me as a CNET writer did so because they found my stories educational and/or entertaining. Then again, maybe they had a weird tic that caused them to Like all CNET writers whose names begin with an "L." Or maybe my Likes were nothing more than an elaborate Nigerian scheme to lead me to the streets of Abuja with a cashier's check in hand.
After all, what, exactly, does it mean to Liked? Do online Likes have any impact on the offline self? And what matters more when it comes to online followers, quality or quantity? (I was happy to accrue new Twitter followers over the weekend--until I noticed that most of their profiles show them in string bikinis, cite their main interest as public sex, and link to porn sites.)
I don't have the answers, and I'm sure many who've dabbled in Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like have their own distinctive take. I just know most of us spend our lives trying to stand out, to be more than just a number, and social networking, it seems, can easily make us hyper-conscious of our personal metrics and what (we think) they say about us.
If it seems like I'm over-analyzing the simple Like button, I probably am. This could be because I came to the Facebook and Twitter game later than many, largely due to my fear that their well-documented magical time-sucking powers would prevent me from ever taking a walk or finishing a book club book again.
As such, I'm newer than some to all the ways social networking can mess with our psyches--supposedly making us depressed, filled with self-doubt, and envious of the perfect lives we think everyone else leads based on their carefully crafted online profiles and witty bon vivant tweets.
In my case, as a newly un-Liked figure amid the masses of digitally Liked and Followed, I was experiencing a modern version of being the last kid picked for the kickball team. It bugged me for a few days. But it bothered me far more that I even cared about it at all.
Was I merely concerned about doing the best job at what I get paid to do, create and promote online content? Or was I falling prey to the syndrome so beautifully described by my CNET colleague Sharon Vaknin in this column on how some Generation Y-ers base their sense of identity on the number and responses of their online followers.
"A big part of my generation wants to know what the cyberworld thinks of us, and we want its inhabitants to pay attention to us," Sharon wrote. Jean Twenge, psychologist and author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement," describes the way people use social-networking sites to create their own personal brand, complete with photos, gossip, fans (friends), and (in the case of MySpace) custom banners and flashing graphics.
I'm not a member of Generation Y and I steered clear of social networking longer than most I know, so I thought I'd be immune to all the ways our online numbers can affect our sense of self. Apparently, though, virtual metrics can toy with the egos of all generations (as evidenced by my mom's pal who likes to brag about how many Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts she has).
Too much Facebook makes teenage girls depressed
Study shows some suffer from 'Facebook envy'
Facebook: Liked to death
Generation Y: We're just not that into Twitter
In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled Liking Is for Cowards. Go For What Hurts, author Jonathan Franzen writes that Facebook has transformed the verb "to like" "from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture's substitute for loving."
And while he doesn't criticize the very human urge to be liked and accepted, he does say the chronic quest for public validation that's endemic to social networking can lead people to adopt a persona that's aimed, in essence, at maximum SEO value. That, Franzen says, might suggest a lack of belief that we can be loved for just who we are.
Increasingly converging, our digital and non-digital selves dance a strange tango. My Facebook Likes may never reach their former level, and the digital me still feels a bit bummed about that. But the real me (which I like to hope remains the more dominant of the duo) knows that the flowers in my garden continue to bloom and my family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, pets, and smartphone are as healthy and loyal to me as ever. I can't deny that it feels good to be Liked, but it feels even better to be liked. And yes, you can retweet that.