Recently, a Crave freelancer pinged me to lament that no one liked him anymore. I felt sad for him, until he explained that it wasn't that nobody liked him anymore, it was that nobody "Liked" him anymore.
The number displayed on the Facebook Like button on his CNET author profile, it turned out, had spontaneously reset itself from 300-plus to one. I posited that a temporary technical glitch had caused the change and, with a wink and a smile (of the emoticon variety) assured him that his stories continued to generate copious reader interest and I planned to keep him on as a Crave writer until he was at least 80.
Clearly caught in that murky vortex where the real-world and digital selves intersect, the writer seemed a bit irked by the mishap. But as these things go in the world of third-party algorithms, his original Like number reappeared just as randomly as it had disappeared.
I, for one, found the episode amusing. Until a few weeks later, when my own Like number started fluctuating wildly.
One minute--were one to assign meaning to such things--the number at the bottom of my stories might be interpreted to indicate that only my first cousins cared to follow my work, the next that I might have a stab at being the next Walt Mossberg.
CNET's social-networking guru blamed the jumpy numbers on a pesky symbol contained in the URL of my author profile. A new URL was the only way to fix the problem once and for all, he said, though doing so would automatically reset my Like count to zero. It sounded a bit like having to suddenly move and make new friends, but I told him to go for it.
At first, I didn't pay much attention to my newly nonexistent Like count (after all, I'd told my fellow writer not to give it a second thought when his numbers went poof). But when I mentioned the situation to a social-networking-savvy co-worker, he looked at me with a sad-eyed empathy that made me rethink the gravity of being so un-Liked in 2011. "Man, that sucks," he frowned. "You've been robbed."
The more I thought about it, the more I thought he might be right. But, torn between the part of me that understands that 10,000 virtual friends do not one real friend make and the part of me that's flattered to be Liked and retweeted, I couldn't quite figure out what, exactly, I'd been robbed of. … Read more