The Value of Dislike

By pressing Facebook's new "dislike" button, by making fun of something, you are still consuming that thing. You may even be enjoying it.

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Jan 2 2014, 10:15pm

Just before Christmas, while America was doing its last minute shopping, Facebook unveiled its new dislike button. Many people liked this; some had been clamoring for it for years. But it turned out that the news, like so much in our newsfeed, was somewhat premature: This was an emoticon in Facebook Messenger, not an Unlike button to rival the now iconic Like. And maybe that's something not to like.

Every medium has an illusion of what it does for society, and then a reality of how it actually functions in society. For the Internet in 2013, that illusion is one of “sharing,” of creating meaningful connections with friends, acquaintances, or larger audiences.

People seem to forget that the Internet in 2013 was primarily a form of entertainment, like watching TV or reading a book once were. For most of us, it was—is—not a revolutionary way to change the world and it is not “interactive.” Reading this blog post doesn’t do anything besides maybe make you think differently for a couple of minutes.

At one point perhaps the Internet as a medium had a different kind of promise, but that promise was neutralized long ago, even before Facebook or Google. There are people who use the internet in revolutionary ways but those people are wanted by the government. The rest of us are 21st Century consumers—we are not “a part of an active online community.” This is not something to be ashamed of, but it is something to notice about yourself. We are all watching THE NEW TV, 4-5 hours a day, and we are all loving it.

I've been thinking about how the pieces of entertainment we find online gather cultural value. I was thinking particularly of Rebecca Black’s "Friday," along with her recently uploaded video, “Rebecca Black Reacts to Friday,” in which she cringe-watches her way through her original viral video, now two years “older and wiser:”

And then, out of the blue, this painting—by George Zimmerman—showed up on eBay:

Both of these works of art—the Zimmerman painting and the original “Friday” video—are both very successful. On December 21st, the auction on this artwork Zimmerman made from household latex paint closed at just over $100,000; Rebecca Black has reportedly earned over a million dollars from her song and video.

But they are not only financially successful. To me, these two artists also have a tremendous amount of cultural value. The fact that this value was generated by people hitting “dislike” on the Black video, or by re-posting the Zimmerman eBay link to comment on how “crazy” and “backwards” the world we live in is, is beside the point. 

By making fun of something, by hitting “share” on something you think is bad, you are still consuming that thing. In fact, on some level, I would argue you are still enjoying that thing. Enjoyment is much more complex than a smile or a laugh or a “deep thought.” The closest analogy from the pre-Internet era of media might be TV shows like our half shocked, half rubbernecked approach to things like Jerry Springer or B movies or romance novels or tabloids. Now we have BuzzFeed and memes and comment pages. There is a particular value to disliking, to snarking, to trolling, and to being trolled. 

For me, there is no difference between art and entertainment, besides context. And context is becoming increasingly movable or transparent. Reports from my friends that went to Art Basel Miami this year clearly indicate that Art has become Partying. I could easily argue that Partying in Bushwick is a form of Art. That is the dumbest example I can come up with—there are many, many more. The separation between Fine Art and Popular Culture was never real, but it is the myth that currently holds it together, just like the myth that Entertainment is simply escapist. Neither and both are true.

How does “negativity” or “hate” function as entertainment/art online? Recently a friend, Al Bedell, posted a video to YouTube which ended up on Reddit, where many people began to “make fun” of the video:

No one “makes fun” of your video unless there is something important to make fun of. I’m not arguing that just because you have got people to make fun of you that you have succeeded in creating social change or critical dialogue, but I am arguing that if you get people to make fun of you, that you have the beginnings of what it takes to be a good entertainer. You may even be an artist. Whether or not you can then figure out a way to turn that into a career is up to you (how thick your skin is), your ambitions (where you want to go), and luck (actually very little is luck in my opinion).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in the world of art and entertainment, being respected and being made fun of are often inter-related. Anyone who has tried to make a living from their art and/or entertainment can tell you stories about how they were taken advantage of (disrespected) but that through that disrespect, they were able to get farther in their career aspirations.

Drake loves to write songs about this. I like reading Kitty Pryde’s blog posts for this reason. In one she ends her personal resolution to stop paying attention to the Internet by invoking The Truman Show: "I still don't know for sure, but if there WERE old ladies knitting on the couch getting excited over watching me pore over Google analytics, I'm really sorry. I finally figured out what I should actually be focusing on—being proud of myself."

In fact, Kitty's the one who tipped me off to the Black reaction video (maybe out of solidarity with these kinds of traumatic experiences). The important thing to remember is that the relationship between disrespect and success has been around long before the internet, for better or worse. Court Jesters, Clowns, Britney Spears, Jeff Koons, The Beatles, James Franco, Weird Al. Maybe disrespect/consumption is actually the medium that artists/entertainers are using—not music or painting, not film or writing, but Public Image. Again, not a new concept, but one that I think remains under discussed. If success is tied to what we now think of as the "brand" of the artist then success is inevitably tied to public image. Duh.

I am not saying that the Zimmerman painting is something I would like to own, but I will write a blog-post about it, which in some ways implicates me in all of the tiny injustices that constitute what we call popular culture. News blogs pretend to not be implicated when breaking a story about something bad that happened, but in some ways maybe they should be, if news is a form of entertainment (which it increasingly feels like to me). I try to accept that I am a part of this nasty machine, and just like everyone else attempt to carve a daily path that has some semblance of integrity. But integrity is a moving target, much like the techniques and secrets behind success and financial stability and Google rankings are moving targets.

Maybe all I am saying is that the Zimmerman painting is successful in the same way that Zizek referred to the ‘fake’ sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's funeral: “Saying it all without saying anything.”

Lastly, OMG: the tabloids report that Grimes has joined the illuminati.

Jacob is an artist. This essay is adapted from his blog