What does a ‘like’ mean, as we slouch toward post-verbalism (if that’s what we’re doing)?

The top of my main Pinterest page.

Some years ago — it could have been 20 — I read an article by Umberto Eco that seems appropriate to this topic. I don’t remember all the particulars of the piece, or even in which magazine it appeared. But I seem to recall that the semiotician and novelist set forth the notion that we might be moving, beyond a post-literate society, to becoming post-verbal, returning to means of communication common in medieval days when, say, a pub called the Rose and Crown would be identified by a hanging sign showing pictures of those things, rather than words.

The premise would seem excessively alarmist, or at least premature, since the decades since I read that have seen an explosion of the written word on the Web. More people are writing, and reading, a greater profusion of words than at any time in the history of this planet.

But sometimes, we are faced with images alone, and words fail us. On friends’ Facebook pages, I’m occasionally confronted with images that just beg for accompanying text to explain them, but nary a word is offered.

And recently, I found myself in a world that brought the Eco piece back powerfully.

I was going to (and eventually did) write a light item for the ADCO blog about the addictiveness of Pinterest, which has hooked a couple of my co-workers. The spark was a study indicating that 20 percent of women who are online were into the site.

At first, I supposed that only women could possibly get into it, for as I perused the boards created by my female co-workers, I was overwhelmed by all the images of food and housewares and decorating ideas. As I said in that ADCO blog post, those screens looked like “the result of Edward Scissorhands going to town on a 10-foot-high stack of old copies of Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living.”

But as I went through the little signup ritual for creating my own account, I saw how quickly the screen would morph into something that more interested me.

Here’s what happens: You sign in to the site. You are offered a screen full of slightly-bigger-than-thumbnail images. You are asked to “like” the ones that appeal to you. What you “like” affects what you see as you continue to scroll down. It’s rather fascinating to watch as the algorithm does its work. For a time, for a long time, the wave of images coming at you seems never-ending. The scroll bar on the right will seem to be approaching the bottom, then suddenly it will glide back up toward the middle as a new load of images arrives.

I saw a lot of images that interested me a great deal, but I couldn’t decide whether to “like” them or not. I mean, what does it say if you click “like” on a picture of a B-26 going down in flames? I don’t like that it’s going down, with American airmen dying in it. But I do want the program to know that I find images of WWII warplanes interesting.

Or what about a picture of Michael Caine as spy Harry Palmer? Will it think I like the raincoat, or “The Ipcress File?” This is a place where words would help.

And what does it mean when I “like” a picture of Marilyn Monroe? I mean, have you ever seen a picture of her you didn’t like, on some level or other? I haven’t. And yet, after I liked one or two of them, they kept coming in a profusion that suggested that Pinterest thought I had some kind of Elton-John-like celebrity fetish centered on her. I continued to “like” them, because that was my honest and uncomplicated answer. But I didn’t want it to offer me nothing but movie-star pictures going forward.

Just because I like Sean Connery doesn’t mean I want to see pictures of Rock Hudson (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And my liking a picture of Natalie Wood doesn’t mean I want to see Robert Wagner. And what’s with these Jody Foster pictures you keep throwing at me? I haven’t liked a single one, and they keep coming. Who do you think I am, John Hinckley? And just because I click on an interesting diagram of old military headgear doesn’t mean I want to look at one Confederate kepi after another!

So here’s where you end up, or where I ended up anyway: Pinterest now “knows” me well enough that one out of 10 or 12 things it throws at me will be mildly interesting. Which I guess is an achievement for a computer program.

But the language of social media — “like” and “friend” and other terms that so often don’t exactly describe the relationship in a given case — still needs work. Let’s not give up on words just yet.

Below are some of the pictures I “liked” as they were thrown at me. But really: What does it mean to “like” a picture of Bonnie and Clyde?

40 thoughts on “What does a ‘like’ mean, as we slouch toward post-verbalism (if that’s what we’re doing)?

  1. Doug Ross

    I think Mother Teresa is scolding you for liking so many Marilyn Monroe photos.

    (Nevermind that I had a life size poster of Marilyn on my dorm room door and have a daughter who HAPPENS to have the same name)

  2. Brad

    Ah, but Kathy, for me it was working. Seriously, a working familiarity with popular forms of social media is actually part of my job. So for me, it was time well spent.

    And Burl, I think it’s a natural for marketing types because it’s about merchandise to a great extent, and the appeal of it lies somewhere in that area where ad people want to me, where people are actively reaching out toward stuff they want.

    As the blog post that inspired my (ADCO) blog post confessed, in explaining her Pinterest addiction: “It’s the only way to keep track of all the stuff I want. It makes it so easy to keep track of the cute baby clothes I want, and the home décor stuff I want, and the kitchen gadgets I want… I’ve become—pinfatuated…”

    For me, it can’t ever be that, because while there might be a few material things in the world I’d like to have — like that Mustang in the thumbnail above, or the hallway with the towering bookshelves — I’m not really all that interested in those things. My acquisitiveness is pretty latent.

    My wife once quoted to me a favorite pronouncement of her mother’s, to the effect that there are two kinds of people in the world: Things people and people people. A social medium where users display stuff they like appeals to both kinds.

    At the time, after a moment’s reflection, I told my wife I didn’t think I was either. I’m not that into stuff, and I’m not very sociable.

    She said yes, and for me her mother had a third category — ideas people. I was satisfied. That seemed to fit.

    Of course, I have a high interest in pop culture as well. So it is that the boards I created for myself so far are: Ideas, Music, Books, Television, Images and The ‘Verse.

    Ideas are a slippery thing on Pinterest. I tried following a guy because he seemed interested in some things I was interested in, but then pins promoting direct democracy started popping up on my feed. So, being a Hamiltonian/Madison believer in a republican form of government, I had to drop him.

  3. Brad

    Here, by the way, is my biggest beef about Pinterest: You can’t “unlike” stuff and make it go away. There ought to be a way to refine your profile by saying, “Don’t send me stuff like THIS,” but there isn’t, as far as I can tell.

    So Pinterest keeps sending me pictures of, say, Jody Foster, when I’d rather not see them. And I kind of want to tell Pinterest that. But I don’t know how.

    Or the way gay picture that is allegedly of Christopher Walken, but doesn’t look like him.

    Or the bare-breasted picture of Janis Joplin, clothed only in beads, that I do find quite intriguing, but would like to remove before my daughters or granddaughters see it on my page.

  4. Brad

    For instance, why do I have three pictures of Pier Angeli? She was a lovely young woman, but I had no idea who she was until I looked her up just now…

  5. Brad

    I now see that, shortly after I posted this, Doug Ross joined Pinterest.

    No doubt it was the Marilyn Monroe picture that pulled him in…

  6. Brad

    I don’t know. That’s just what it looked like to me. Totally arbitrary, I guess. The picture of Jason Statham with his shirt off doesn’t strike me that way, but the one that is allegedly of Christopher Walken does.

    I don’t say that for good or ill; I was just being descriptive. Some of those Jody Foster pics are apparently intended to have heterosexual appeal, but I’m not interested in them, either.

  7. Silence

    I was wondering why you had the topless pic of Jason Statham. I mean he’s a fine actor and all, but it struck me as oddly out of place.

  8. Brad

    I’m a fan of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” I even sort of like the Transporter movies, in spite of the cartoonish action.

    They didn’t show me any pictures of Statham with his shirt on. Just this one, so I clicked “like.” Besides, it caused me to identify with him, because I look just like that with my shirt off.

  9. Brad

    My favorite Statham bit: The opening of “Lock, Stock” when he’s hawking stuff on a street corner:

    “Right. Let’s sort the buyers from the spyers, the needy from the greedy, and those who trust me from the ones who don’t, because if you can’t see value here today, you’re not up here shopping. You’re up here shoplifting. You see these goods? Never seen daylight, moonlight, Israelite. Fanny by the gaslight. Take a bag, c’mon take a bag. I took a bag home last night. Cost me a lot more than ten pound, I can tell you. Anyone like jewelry? Look at that one there. Handmade in Italy, hand-stolen in Stepney. It’s as long as my arm. I wish it was as long as something else. Don’t think because these boxes are sealed up, they’re empty. The only man who sells empty boxes is the undertaker, and by the look of some of you lot today, I’d make more money with me measuring tape. Here, one price. Ten pound… Squeeze in if you can. Left leg, right leg, your body will follow. They call it walking…”

    I also like the bits with Tommy in “Snatch:”

    Turkish: … What’s that?
    Tommy: It’s me belt, Turkish.
    Turkish: No, Tommy. There’s a gun in your trousers. What’s a gun doing in your trousers?
    Tommy: It’s for protection.
    Turkish: Protection from what? “Zee Germans”?

  10. Burl Burlingame

    Pinterest seems like a psychology experiment by data-driven marketeers.

    BTW, see “Crank” with Jason Statham. Brilliant.

  11. Brad

    “Crank” had an interesting premise; can’t say it was all that enjoyable. What I don’t get is that there was a sequel, when he pretty clearly died at the end of the first one…

  12. Brad

    It’s kind of weird how he became an action star, after playing those roles that were all about the dialogue. In both of the Guy Ritchie flicks, he played guys who got by by fast talking, whereas others (i.e., Vinnie Jones) played the tough customers.

  13. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    You mean, Christopher Walken looked gay in the photo….only, still, kind of offensive….

  14. Mark Stewart

    The square crop often seen in social media sometimes reveals a fresh take on our programmed historical preference for rectangular imagery.

    The photo of Marilyn Monroe reading is a good example. As with words, how we frame images alters the impact.

  15. Kathryn Fenner

    Isn’t there some sort of mathematical reason we prefer rectangles? Golden rectangles and Fibonacci sequences and nautilus shells?

  16. Mark Stewart


    True. But at the ratio’s heart is a square. Usually, we think of a square image as too simple, but its also a bit mysterious. The mind assumes something was cropped out. That’s why “regular” photos and paintings can seem like such a contrived composition. The golden ratio is more effective in architecture where the proportions shelter.

    Marilyn in the square sheds all that which is so contrived in her photographic posing within a rectangular composition. At the same time, there is good reason why aspect ratios on TV’s have gone from square to widescreen. Proportiomed rectangles always work. Squares work only sometimes. But they can add the unexpected at the right times.

  17. Mark Stewart

    I sounded pedantic. Don’t like that; simply shared my perspective on cropping.

    Lots of theory behind a simple chop to a well-known photo …

  18. Brad

    Yeah, I was thinking it was getting a little deep there, but I didn’t want to be the philistine who said something.

    In honor of the discussion, I cropped the mug shot square on this post

  19. Brad

    You realize not all of those “square” pictures are really square, right? WordPress just thumbnails them that way. If you click on them, you see their Pinterest shapes.

    Speaking of shapes…

    The thumbnails of Marilyn and Christina Hendricks next to each other reminded me of the episode on Mad Men, in season two, when one of the boys posits the idea that all women are (or aspire to be) either a Jackie or a Marilyn. Betty Draper, you see, would be a Jackie. While Joan would be a Marilyn. Or rather, one of the guys corrects, “Marilyn is a Joan.” Which is arguably true, at least within that reality.

    (By the way, I disagree with the blog that I linked to above. That dichotomy, aside from the fact that it’s another way of oversimplifying women, isn’t the same as “either a Madonna or a whore.” Jackie wasn’t a Madonna. She was an early-60s ideal of beauty that was chic, high-class, unreachable, and sophisticated. Marilyn, and Joan, were raw, earthy, full-bodied, sexual femininity. In fact, of the two types, Marilyn probably comes closer to a “mother” type than Jackie, who seems almost too ethereal for child-bearing. One invokes aesthetic admiration, the other a deep, earth-based kind of desire.)

  20. `

    I did. That’s what caught my attention, the way the thumbnail print looked fresher and also more “real” than the original – which had Marilyn doing her typical pose of sultry with a twinge of irony.

  21. Brad

    Sorry. I guess I didn’t read your comment closely enough…

    I don’t know about the theories. I do know that back in my film photography days, starting when I got my first SLR when I was in college, I had a preference for vertical framing. I loved to shoot with my camera on its side.

    But in recent years, I’ve come to prefer horizontal images. I’m pretty sure that’s just conditioning caused by the fact that horizontal — and the more horizontal, the better — images are easier to use on a blog post. They were also easier on those op-ed pages with a high ad stack when I was with the paper. And of course, I’ve always got my eye out for a new header image…

  22. Brad

    Square is nice. Square grabs attention.

    Anyone remember the fad, in the 80s, when newspapers started cropping headshots, particularly those that ran with columns, horizontally rather than vertically? It was like looking at the person through a partially open window, or a letter slot. It often involved cutting off the subject’s hair and perhaps even chin, with a bunch of space at the sides, but it was a “dramatic” presentation that was at least not the usual boring thing.

  23. Steven Davis II

    Brad since you shoot people, in the last decade you may have had no choice but to transition from vertical to horizontal.

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