Tag Archives: demonstratives

I like ambiguous demonstratives

One of the recent changes to Facebook that went undiscussed (or at least less discussed than the it-looks-like-Twitter thing) is liking. Attached to most of the pieces of content that appear in Facebook is a button that says “Like”. The intent seems to be this: liking is like commenting without content. Kinda like carving your name into a picnic table – not because you have anything to say, but just because you want to let everyone know that you were there. Neato.

I like this

There’s something ambiguous about liking, though. Imagine the following situations:

  1. Friend 1 posts an abstract drawing that she made in MS Paint.
  2. Friend 2 posts a status update that says “I got a new job and I am very happy about it”.
  3. Friend 3 posts an artsy photograph of a beer.
  4. Friend 4 posts a link to her singing a song about how she is very sad.

Clicking “Like” in each case means something different. In (1), the only real candidate as the object of my liking is the picture itself, especially since it’s not a picture of anything. In (2), the most likely liked entity is not the status update itself (which is not particularly funny or poetic or otherwise remarkable) but the fact that my friend got a new job and is happy about it. In (3), it’s not really clear: I could be liking the picture (since it’s so artsy and thus awesome) or the beer (since it’s beer). In (4), presumably I like the song, not the link (which would just be a URL or something like that) or the propositional content of the song (that the singer is sad).

We might pinpoint this ambiguity in the demonstrative “this” that Facebook attaches to each act of liking. When you single out the object of your liking with “this” and without a sortal, there is room for audience interpretation as to what you really meant to like.

However (as I just realized – while writing the previous paragraph, I got a notification from Facebook in another window letting me know that someone likes my status) Facebook doesn’t always leave the sortal out. In the notifications section, you are told that someone likes your status or your picture or whatever. But clearly, as in example (2) above, this is sometimes not the intent at all. So in this case the phrase “this status” might be acting metonymically, as shorthand for “the propositional content of this status” or something like that (like when you say “I like this book”, I suppose).

Cases like (4) are the interesting ones, because you might end up sending the wrong message – there are legitimate candidates for thing-liked that are not very nice. I suppose that, where friends are concerned, ambiguities will be interpreted with generosity. But you might want to be careful what you like!