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Review of “Living in the cult of likability”

In his New York Times article “Living in the Cult of Likability,” Bret Easton Ellis examines the culture of the “likability” of social media. He says that in this new likability economy the businesses and individuals are increasingly bound by “Review Culture”, and finally losing the freedom. He credits the rise of social media profiles and branding, which has forged online reputation management that makes people involuntarily to be a part of the rating system. He also describes that this tangible rating system encourages self-censorship since the users of the social platform are easily caught in the group thinking of having an idealized portrait. Under this “corporate status quo,” Ellis worries that people’s mental health will be clouded by anxiety or paranoia because the cult of likability is increasing their obsession with being liked. Everyone will eventually be kidnapped by this new system, voluntarily or not. Maybe the world is transforming into a scenario of “stamping out passion, stamping out the individual.”

Illustration by Luisa Vera

I have to admit that I am a conformist in the reputation cult, although not fully reverential. What I’ve experienced is a goal-oriented culture. How to accomplish tasks efficiently has become one of the necessary skills in modern times. In other words, efficiency is a hidden clause in every aspect of our daily life. For example, I am an addict to online shopping, especially in China. We have sophisticated and complete online shopping platforms, such as Alibaba, which offers countless choices to form our unique dressing style. Based on my selection mechanism, saving time from phone-screen scrolling is not an impossible task for me. By reading the reviews, I can estimate the quality and texture of the product. Viewing customer images enables me to have an accurate prediction of the effect of the clothes on my body, including length and tightness. The mutual evaluation mechanism established by the reputation economy is helping me to consolidate my distinctive style in a super-fast-speed. Meanwhile, for my social media, I don’t get emotionally involved in how many likes I can receive for the words or pictures I posted. But, I couldn’t escape the small amount of joy and excitement generated by the high rate of likes and the increasing number of fans, which, to some extent has injected vitality into my life.

I have to admit that I am a beneficiary of reputation management. The branding culture represents the change of times. Instead of being anxious about its negative influence, why don’t we take advantage of its benefits? As I believe, the social media portrait deriving form this mechanism is an alternative for us to present the true-self in another dimension. The evolution of the information medium can be an example. In the beginning, as the only medium of communication, books guided readers to imagine the story by relying on their understanding or analysis of the logic behind the words. Then, with the invention of television, it successfully combined the visual and acoustic sensors into information transmission. Now, under the prevalence of smartphones, people can digest the news without geographical and time constraints. These improvements dramatically revise our definition of information. Social media indeed compress the room for imagination, but it also expands the tunnels that we can express ourselves. We can build up our platform for showing our creations, if we can grasp the logical structure of the reputation and branding management, such as user preferences or the future trend of user experience design. Instead of relying on agencies or weaving social networks, everyone can make their voice to be heard by maintaining social media profiles. By mastering the skill of how to operate the “online-persona”, we can protect the “imperfect self” in our creation or our daily life. In fact, the technology behind the reputation economy has democratized our self-expression. Put simply, this is the era of multi-opportunities for artists or designers.

However, I also must admit that I am afraid of the uncertainty brought by this “cult of likability.” I don’t know how to make sure my artistry and ideology aren’t affected by self-censorship that comes from the pressure of maintaining the nicer and friendlier image on social media. Because, for avoiding the result described by Ellis, I have no choice but to seize the high level of analysis capacity, and a comprehensive ability of judgment to absorb the unknown knowledge. The courage and the ability of being sole or unique is not the thing that everybody can master. In order words, that I have to keep thinking and improving myself ceaselessly is a pressure. Do I lose my right for being an imperfect self as well? Do I have the wherewithal to resist this huge social judgment mechanism? Can I completely prevent myself from this imperceptible abductions?

At this point, I am clicking on the Airbnb APP to view my reviews as a guest. To my surprise, one homeowner replied to my comment with the chilling word “bitterly disappointed”. What’s worse, I couldn’t control myself and felt a surge of anger, even though it had happened six months ago. I’m just being honest in response to this terrible living experience and her lack of responsibility. What made her leave such a negative and unfriendly image in my public customer grade? I try to state my thoughts on this article in a sensible way but ended up having a hard slap by my reflection of reality. Perhaps, for harmoniously putting myself as a gear in this “likable” mechanism, I need to keep practicing.

Bret Easton Ellis, Living in the cult of likability, New York Times, December 2015,