Back in 2009, Facebook launched a world-changing piece of code—the “like” button. “Like” was the brainchild of several programmers and designers, including Leah Pearlman and Justin Rosenstein. They’d hypothesized that Facebook users were often too busy to leave comments on their friends’ posts—but if there were a simple button to push, boom: It would unlock a ton of uplifting affirmations. “Friends could validate each other with that much more frequency and ease,” as Pearlman later said.
It worked—maybe a little too well. By making “like” a frictionless gesture, by 2012 we’d mashed it more than 1 trillion times, and it really did unlock a flood of validation. But it had unsettling side effects, too. We’d post a photo, then sit there refreshing the page anxiously, waiting for the “likes” to increase. We’d wonder why someone else was getting more likes. So we began amping up the voltage in our daily online behavior: trying to be funnier, more caustic, more glamorous, more extreme.
Code shapes our lives. As the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has written, “software is eating the world,” though at this point it’s probably more accurate to say software is digesting it.