You have the like to remain silent

8 May

Anything you like can and will be used against you in a court of law

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Yes, this is a very dramatic picture for a post about Facebook, but I never get to use the pictures that I took at Williamsburg.

Four score and seven days ago… was the last time I updated my blog.  Okay, so it was probably more like ten score and seven days ago, but that’s not nearly as auspicious an opening line.  And auspicious opening lines do relate to the subject at hand: freedom of speech, more specifically if a like constitutes speech.  So really, freedom of likes.

The New York Times is reporting that, in a case that’s sure to go up on appeal (seriously, anyone want to bet on this?) a judge found that:

“Simply liking a Facebook page is insufficient.  It is not the kind of substantive statement that has previously warranted constitutional protection … For the Court to assume that the Plaintiffs made some specific statement without evidence of such statements is improper.”

Here’s my question: since when does speech need to be substantive to be protected?  I say insubstantial things all the time…  bippity boppity boo, see?  So, what was the like that warranted such a hubbub?  A man was fired from his job at a sheriff’s department, the reason: creating discord in the office by liking the sheriff’s political opponent’s Facebook page.  Okay, probably not the most savvy thing to do, but not exactly the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theatre. 

ImageAs someone who’s run social media for political campaigns and has been involved in some pretty heated political discussions via Facebook (Why do people insist on positing sexist/racist/homophobic things?!), I can tell you that, in practice, people use the like button to convey political sentiments all the time.  They like someone’s post to say that they agree, on like a comment disagreeing with the content that was shared to show that they, also, object to it.  People use a like to proclaim their love of Hilary Clinton (or maybe just of Text from Hillary).

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Best baby name ever.

I recognize that likes are speech and am careful of what I like because of it.  So, even though, in the moment, I might think that “MY SISTER SAID IF I GET ONE MILLION FANS SHE WILL NAME HER BABY MEGATRON” is the funniest Facebook page I’ve ever seen, I’m not going to like it and have it attached to my timeline, my Facebook permanent record.  What we say, what we share, and what we like on Facebook does become part of our permanent record, more so than any speech ever had in the past.  Before you could yell fire in a crowded theatre and there’s a good chance that, in all the confusion that it caused, people might not be able to identify you as the one who yelled.  But now, when you’re logged in to Facebook, or Google, or any number of other services that track your movements across the web (and don’t think for a second that you’re ever totally logged out), you’re leaving a little piece of your digital DNA on whatever you say.

Liking something isn’t the same as flashing a fleeting thumbs up to a friend.  It’s just a gesture, really a digital representation of a gesture, but it’s a substantive gesture and one with staying power.  (Even if you are just substantively liking the idea of a baby named Megatron.)

Questions of the day: Do you think a like is speech?  Have you even not liked something that you really did like because you were afraid of how that like might make you look?  (Do you think there was a better way to word that last sentence?)

MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole.  It’s been on a bit of a hiatus while I’ve been working on my MBA, but school’s out for the summer and the blog’s back on. Find anything interesting in the worlds of tech, culture, or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at 2maggieotoole@gmail.com.

4 Responses to “You have the like to remain silent”

  1. littlenavyfish May 9, 2012 at 3:35 am #

    I’m a second-year university student studying History, and we have a private Facebook group for all the second-year History people – a lot of discussion goes on in it about the merits of various modules/academics and people ask for help on assignments and referencing and all sorts. Fairly recently, there was a protracted and passionate discussion about the computer class component of a particular module that provoked some very strong opinions, and I think the “like” showed its power here. Every time someone added to the debate, I would watch the “likes” go up on that comment and be able to see how many of my fellow students agreed. I myself wrote quite a lengthy comment, received a fairly significant number of likes and felt comforted because I felt it showed that people agreed with me. In situations like that, I feel that “likes” can reveal the lay of the land, so to speak, because people who don’t feel confident enough to write a response will still “like” those who they agree with, and thus add their voices. Sorry for the loooong comment, I just think this is really interesting! As always, loving your work 🙂

    • Maggie O'Toole May 9, 2012 at 6:10 am #

      No worries about the comment length. Obviously I struggle with brevity, too. And, that was a very good example. I wanted to put an explanation like that in this post, but had a hard time fitting it it… because of length.

      When I was in school, I tried to convince one of my professors that we should have a Facebook group for the class instead of setting up a group on the university’s message board because everyone would see it on Facebook and no one would check the message board. He wasn’t convinced and said that academics didn’t belong on Facebook. I feel vindicated to hear that your school’s gotten over than.

  2. georgettesullins May 9, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    So nice to see you back! I learn so much from your posts.

    • Maggie O'Toole May 9, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

      Thanks, Georgette! I feel like I’ve been missing my digital life. So glad to be on summer vacation and have the time to write again.

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