LikeBlockr will be launched as an official artwork of Atlas Sighed: The 2014 Calgary Biennial, a guerrilla exhibition of contemporary art comprising numerous infiltrations into public space and dispersed throughout Calgary and its suburbs from December 1, 2014 through to March 31, 2015. Below is a conversation between LikeBlockr creator Dan Zimmerman and Calgary Biennial curator Steven Cottingham:
Dan Zimmerman wants to get rid of “likes.” Currently, he’s working on an app for mobile phones called LikeBlockr that does just that: it removes the like function from Instagram and prevents users from viewing or engaging with that kind of numerical data.
I called Dan over FaceTime to speak more about his project. We began our conversation talking about different forms of quantification and how the conventions of these measurements need to be questioned.
Dan – I’ve been thinking of different ways to disperse this app, looking to the methods that real programmers and developers use, and I think I have to make a Facebook page for LikeBlockr. Do you think that’s a conflict? Having a Facebook page that’s getting likes?
Steven – I don’t know. On one hand it’s acknowledging the futility of the app itself because you have to like it to stay abreast. But it’s also acknowledging that we’re all sort of complicit in these quantitative behaviours and sometimes they’re necessary, but I don’t think that they’re necessary to the extent that we rely on them. A friend shared an article today (I’ll send you the link after) but it was basically about art and grant-writing in a neoliberal economy.
s- The focus was on how much pressure there is to deliver quantifiable stats to granting bodies and public funders.
d- Sure, yeah.
s- When art, for example, enters more political, electoral conversations it becomes about stuff like, “Look how much art we enable! Look how many artists!” But the author of the article was like, “I don’t need more art. I just want good art.”
d- Yeah, exactly.
s- Reading some of the comments was interesting. Some argued that you need lots of bad art to ensure the presence of good art. They said that the ratio of good to bad is always so heavily weighted toward the bad. You need all the bad art to find some goodness in there.
d- Yeah, that sounds relevant for sure. I was reading about app marketing strategies, and much of it is about validating your market. They talk a lot about how to get customers out, so one of the things I want to do is really reach out to those magazines and online blogs. I’m planning a newsblitz.
s- Yeah, I think that’s great. Like I said in our emails, I think it’s really important that you use all of the languages of apps and adopt those expected conventions. Because, for you, this is all part of the art project.
d- For sure. When I was interviewing programmers for the project, one team said, “You need to consult Instagram, you have to ask their permission first before we’re going to work with you.” And I was like, there’s no way I’m doing that. But I think one of the best situations would be if Instagram had a problem with it. I mean, it itself is a free app, too.
s- Yeah, that would be good. And you’d get even more media because of it. There have been a few projects for the Biennial where artists’ projects have been held up because they wanted to do things properly and ask permission. So, I’ve really had to reiterate that I have no interest in asking permission. We can work together to write apologies later, if necessary, but I think it’s important to show to the city, to the public, to your peers, whoever, that you just care so much that you’re willing to do things yourself unaffirmed by any greater entity. It’s like citizens working to take control of their own public spaces.
d- Yeah, definitely. And I think there were so many parallels between that and the currency of likes. I’ve been reading a bit about it how it’s completely unregulated but it’s still a currency.
d- It’s the wild west out there. I mean, you have people stationed in India operating click farms where people are buying tons of likes. I think YouTube just cracked down on a couple music labels for buying view counts by the millions. It’s an advertising campaign for sure. I know a lot of people who don’t treat it like that necessarily, but they still treat it like money in a way. I have a few friends that are “Instagram famous.”
d- Like, one friend went on a date with this girl and another friend was asking, “Oh, how many followers does she have?” And he was like, “Oh, 15k.” Is that the criteria to date now? It’s like they’re in this elite class that is so quantifiable. And when you hit ten thousand Instagram followers you get a little “k” beside your number. It’s a sign of prestige. An award. That’s definitely something I want to resist against because it’s not necessarily based in worthwhile content. When people proliferate this culture of celebrity in this way… I don’t know what it is but it’s upsetting. Maybe because I only have like three hundred followers or something.
s- Wow. Three hundred still seems like a lot to me.
d- I don’t know if there’s ever been anything that’s been this explicit before. Like, you have always been able to judge someone by their car or clothes but this is so basic, numeric. I think it’s really vulnerable to quick value judgments and doesn’t necessitate any proof other than likes. Do you know what I mean?
s- Right. I think it really effectively embodies, or demonstrates, democracy. Everything good and everything that I think is problematic with democracy.
s- They’re just numbers with no regard to experience or expertise or care or how much time someone has spent studying, um, electoral platforms for instance. Consider a poli-sci major versus someone who voted because the candidate’s name was pleasant-looking on the ballot. And quantitative data can still be manipulated to the extent that it becomes a qualitative marker, depending on its source. I spoke to someone who worked briefly in PR for a big oil company, and they receive so many studies saying over and over that they’re raping the Earth and then maybe one study that isn’t so sure and so the firm will capitalize on that one study and bend it to say whatever they need to say.
d- Yeah, totally, it’s kind of even colder.
s- Yeah. But then on the plus side it demonstrates, through numbers, that this is something that’s widely appreciated and affects a lot of people and is therefore important. And because likes don’t need expertise or certain access, it creates a very open environment and can be a great grassroots tool to rise up against something that previously claimed to speak for a significant population or whatever. Like taking power back.
d- Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting. Like, slacktivism is fascinating because you have a lot of slacktivist practices like email petitions and Facebook groups but then there’s certain ones like that group Avaaz. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but their email list is so large that they actually have effected some pretty tangible change. Because you do need that kind of influence; you do need an electorate or a voting base before people take you seriously.
d- But I think that’s dangerous too because maybe it dwarfs those individuals who aren’t able to accrue that level of merit-based judgment. Like, if you’re not able to get ten thousand followers you don’t really have a voice in what good photography is, you know?
s- Yeah, and meritocracies are strange also, like, someone I respect on Twitter pointed out that a joke Twitter account (that was created that same day) already had fifteen thousand followers for only twenty tweets, and all the tweets/jokes were basically the same thing over and over and it wasn’t even that great to begin with. And, looking at what’s trending on Facebook, on that sidebar, is constantly depressing. It’s mostly about sports teams or celebrities and rarely about, you know, international conflicts or social issues. It’s depressing that this is what’s important, what people are paying attention to. But, obviously, if my beliefs aren’t trending then who am I to say what’s important or worth paying attention to?
d- Yeah, exactly. And from the beginning I’ve said this isn’t about shutting down Instagram or getting rid of likes as a currency. But more about playing devil’s advocate. Some people might be like, why don’t you create a dislike button for Instagram? But I don’t think that’s the same thing.
s- No, that’s still playing into the same game of quantifying.
d- Yeah. Exactly. So, I think I’m interested in having a place where people can kind of have a respite from, I don’t know, tangible points of envy or whatever. I could see LikeBlockr becoming something that people don’t actually use but say they use. Does that make sense?
s- Yeah. The whole thing is a conceptual art piece. Whether or not it’s utilized, whether or not people install it forever or just to check it out, the idea of it provides a lot to think about and acts as a catalyst for more conversations like the one we’ve been having.
d- Yeah, actually I should be able to track those stats.
s- I really like the idea of being able to play devil’s advocate. Do you know where likes began? Is it Facebook?
d- Yeah, I think so.
s- And then Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram all have equivalents.
d- Yeah, it’s like a zeitgeist where everything happened all at the same time.
s- Maybe stemming back to ‘Hot or Not’ type websites.
d- Or view counts, like traffic counters on Geocities sites.
s- I think likes are a relatively new trope, and it’s important for us to question things as soon as they become become taken for granted. Your project, I think, illustrates this.
d- I think it says, ‘Likes are useful but be wary of the kind of thinking this encourages.’