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leah mclaren

Over the holidays, my mother and I tried to explain to a cousin who doesn't use social media why we were posting pictures of the Christmas tree, the kids and the turkey online. "We're sharing," we explained. "All our friends do the same."

This cousin, a successful, well-informed woman, was utterly baffled by our online lives. When we showed her how Instagram works, she couldn't understand why so many people would want to post photos of their cheese platters and dogs in felt antlers. She found it weirdly obnoxious, even a bit rude.

"I just don't understand why anyone would feel the need to do that," she kept saying, to which my mother and I responded, more and more emphatically as the Champagne flowed, "For the likes! To like and be liked! Liking is the whole point, don't you see?"

She didn't. And in many ways, I like her all the more for it.

Because since then I have been thinking about my habit of liking online, and I've decided that maybe it's not the digital panacea of positivity I've assumed it to be. I began to ask myself: Why do I feel the need to like and be liked on social media, often dozens of times a day? What does it actually mean? And what am I really imparting as I give this kind of effortless, one-click approval?

In real life as on social media, I have always been a liker. A compliment-giver and compulsive people-pleaser, I hate saying no and enjoy making people feel good in the moment. A generous giver and receiver of digital back-pats. I don't "like" advertisements or brands or companies as a rule, but when friends post jokes, reasonable political opinions or emotional tributes to their recently deceased cats, I'm always there with a silent thumbs-up. Say what you will about me, I'm a thoughtful and connected clicker.

Except, of course, liking stuff is really not very thoughtful or connected at all. If anything, the temptation to give a silent online nod instead of, say, composing a thoughtful comment, sending an e-mail or picking up the phone is one that prevents us from making real contact with our friends and loved ones. In this sense, constantly liking your friends' updates is a poor substitute for actually having a conversation with them.

I started to notice I was giving my approval to almost anything that didn't bore or annoy me on Facebook. If anyone posted a picture of their kids or pets, I automatically liked it; whether I'd actually met or was interested in their kids or pets seemed beside the point. Not to offer my digital check mark seemed grumpy, or worse, lurkerish – and who wants to be accused of that?

But in fact there was something more pernicious at work. Researchers have long established that one of the reasons social media (and online activity generally) is so addictive is that when we connect on it, our brain releases a hit of dopamine – the chemical that helps to regulate our pleasure centres. But in recent years, research into dopamine has expanded and many scientists now believe it is also linked with "seeking" behaviour online – not just the compulsion to check your messages every six seconds, but the need to like and be liked.

What's even creepier is that the programmers at Facebook know this and have arranged their mysterious algorithms so that the more you like someone or something, the more you will get. So "liking" is not just about offering your approval; it's how we establish our online identity. As Mat Honan wrote in his fascinating article for Wired last year called "I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here's What it Did to Me," the extent to which you like and favourite things can determine your entire social media experience. "The like and the favourite are the new metrics of success – very literally," he wrote. "Not only are they ego-feeders for the stuff we put online as individuals, but advertisers track their campaigns on Facebook by how often they are liked. … Liking is an economic act."

An essay published on the popular blog shortly after Honan's piece tried an opposite experiment. In her piece "I Quit Liking Things on Facebook for Two Weeks. Here's How it Changed my View of Humanity," Elan Morgan claims resisting the urge to like forced her to interact in a meaningful way – she ended up having conversations with her friends instead of digitally nodding at them. And while there's no way to prove a counter-factual argument, she suspected it improved the quality of her Facebook news feed as well. "It's like all the shouty attention-getters were ushered out of the room as soon as I stopped incidentally asking for those kinds of updates by using the Like function," she writes. "I have not seen a single repugnant image of animal torture, been exposed to much political wingnuttery, or continued to drown under the influx of uber-cuteness that liking kitten posters can bring on."

For me, the need to like and be liked on social media has started to feel a bit like a compulsion rather than an expression of goodwill. And so this year, here is my resolution: To like less and contact more. To talk instead of click. And if I want the approval of my friends, I can seek it out for the right reasons – rather than posting a picture of a kitten for a dopamine hit to the brain.

So if I don't like you, just remember it's because I really do like you. And with any luck, you'll like me back all the more for it in the end.