Why I like ‘like’ – a creative’s confession

By Andrew Boulton |

February 14, 2020 | 5 min read

Despite being brutally maligned and largely dismissed in every respectable field of creative writing, ‘like’ is as close to a perfect word as you’ll find.

Think about it. The superlatives we deal in, especially as copywriters, are all open to misuse, overuse and, worst of all, overstating the ordinary. It is unlikely that the four thousand items currently being advertised as awesome or ultimate or amazing or immaculate all merit such lofty terms of appraisal.

Likes neon

Why I like 'like'

There is no danger of this with ‘like’ for, as I said, it is perfect.

‘Like’, for me, works as word because it expertly captures the nuance of moderate, even half-hearted, satisfaction. It is a positive word that loudly conveys the negative, an agreeable review that stage-whispers its very real disagreement.

When we say we ‘like’ something there is an immediate sense of its inadequacy. This kind of tricksy double-speak is usually reserved for obscure and untranslatable Germanic words that take a full minute to type out. ‘Like’ is four letters of uncertain and willfully equivocal gratification. Perfect.

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Your English teacher was probably right to tell you to plough all traces of ‘like’ from your prose, but that’s not to say it isn’t an important and desperately relevant modern word.

Social media, for example, is a cultural and creative hierarchy determined by the lethargic momentum of a billion nodding thumbs. Approval is given away so cheaply and frequently on social media that it’s hard to think of a more appropriate word for such a languorous expression of droopy endorsement.

So perhaps, when creatives defy all they are told about objective criticism and reach instinctively for the L-word, it is saying more about the work’s value than we allow.

Work that is ‘liked’ is work that has failed. An idea that amasses ‘likes’, real or virtual, is meeting only the barest conditions for inspirational thought. It is not obviously repellent and it is just the right side of invisible – and that is all it takes to earn the status of ‘liked’.

And yet, when young creatives are asked to critique their peers’ work, and the word ‘like’ is inevitably under-armed into play, no one stops to ask what is really meant.

What if, instead of refusing to accept ‘like’ or ‘not like’ as an acceptable response, we tried to figure out what is actually behind that specific choice of word.

On the surface, it’s the safe and somewhat lazy way to express a dipped-pinky of an opinion, but really it is saying a great deal about the idea’s impact and effect.

Now, when students tell me they ‘like’ the piece of work they’re shown, instead of grumbling about the inadequacy of that particular word, I ask them to explain what they don’t ‘like’ about it.

The fact they instinctively chose a word conveying such frail and famished admiration means there is clearly something lacking. To sort-of quote Joan Didion, the absence of opinion can be construed as opinion. The reticence of the word ‘like’ perversely serves to unmask some hidden conviction, like if you were to sneak silently out of a theatre only to clatter into the ice-cream boy.

The trick then is not to force them into choosing a different type of adjective, but to express why the idea has left them only partially fulfilled.

When asked to reflect on what ‘liking’ something really expresses – and what it says about the limitations of the idea – I find our students are much more honest and reflective. By allowing ‘like’ as a first answer – but then exploring what that ‘like’ is actually saying – we tend to end up with a critique that builds outwards from an initial, and very individual, response to something far more rigorous and reasoned.

A lot of the time, simply ‘liking’ an idea reveals a lot more about its character than dismissing it at once as salty puffin shit. But if anyone ever says they really like something, they can, of course, go directly into the bin.

Follow Andrew on Twitter.


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