The Facebook instant message sent by my friend's wife fluttered across my Smartphone screen: His mother, sadly, passed away over the weekend. Details of the arrangements to follow.
I immediately responded with a note of condolence, and my baby boomer index finger, considerably thickened over the decades and a poor fit for pecking on mobile devices, sought out the Send button. It missed and landed on the Like button.
I thought, OMG! I just Liked a message about my friend's mother's death! In a panic, I pressed Like again, hoping it would toggle to Unlike. No such luck -- a message appeared that said continuing to press on Like would Like it even more.
I was beginning to panic. My Like was now irretrievably whizzing through cyberspace. How would I be able to face my friend and his wife again? They must be wondering what sadistic tendencies, what schadenfreude, I secretly possessed. How could I take such apparent delight in their distress? How could I have the audacity to Like what they were going through, when I should be commiserating?
I considered, then rejected, various options. Do I send them a note explaining my mistake? Do I call and apologize? Do I throw my Smartphone out the window, swearing off the perils of technology forever? Smartphone, Dumbperson. Too embarrassed to contact them again, I hoped against hope they wouldn't notice the Like.
My generation, the one that grew up with rotary phones, black-and-white TVs, stickball in the streets and vinyl records, has had some growing pains adapting to new technology. Texting is a challenge, with our fatter fingers, diminished eyesight and poorer eye-hand coordination. When I check the screen of my mobile phone after pecking out a text, what I often see is some strange language, possibly related to Sanskrit or the random letters on a rack of Scrabble. Even worse is Autocorrect, which changes my thoughts into some garbled message.
Perhaps even more disconcerting is the changing language of technology. Take, for instance, the aforementioned Like. To be sure, I was never a big fan of Like, the button or the word itself. I think back to my adolescence, when I heard those crushing words from Susie, to whom I had pledged eternal love: "I mean, I like you as a person, but . . . " It was the "like" part that was the killer. "Like" just doesn't make it when raging hormones demand undying devotion. The damage to my psyche and devastated ego was, I believed at the time, irreversible. Since then, I've always thought of "like" as one of those slippery words that pretends to be positive but in reality has negative connotations. A wolf in sheep's clothing, if you will.
At a time when superlatives are tossed around with abandon, such passionless and neutered words as like, good and nice have become meaningless, if not downright pejorative. The ubiquitous surveys we are now bombarded with on services and goods, as well as children's report cards, may have categories of Outstanding, Very Good, Good, Fair and Poor. That puts Good smack in the middle, decidedly average, or not particularly good at all. The once respectable B is no longer acceptable in many quarters.
When I bring my car in for routine servicing, my service representative admonishes me, "You'll get an email survey in a few days. I need to get a 10 in all categories or I'll be fired!" Right.
And yet somehow, improbably, Facebook has managed to elevate that most uninspiring and mundane word, like, to iconic status. It is now the currency of social media. Merchants and corporations, restaurants and services desperately implore us to Like them on Facebook ("Like us on Facebook for a chance to win 10 gazillion dollars in our sweepstakes!"). PBS recently ran a Frontline documentary on social media called "Generation Like," meaning this has become serious business. Thanks to the emotionally challenged wizards at Facebook, Like seems to be morphing into the new Love.
And I wonder about those people who spend 24/7 on social media, have more than 1,400 "friends," post selfies and then count the Likes to validate their existence and massage their egos. Do they really have lives?
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