Random Thoughts on LeBron and Social Networking

by Hua Hsu

Mere centimeters above this sentence, there is an icon you can click in order to declare your approval for the sentences that follow. I'm not saying you have to or should do it, but it's easy. Recommend this or some adjacent post to your friends on Facebook, someone can then "like" or recommend it themselves, and slowly, the tree of knowledge grows. If you disapprove, then your only recourse is to log in and register a comment down below—but no marketer will tally the exact number of these votes of no confidence.

To offer a one-click recommendation or a quick thumbs-up, to choose between a range of reactions as varied as "Like," "Cool" or "Useful": these are incredibly moderate ways to feel about something. To "like" something in the digital age is akin to judging a book "interesting" or a person "nice"—it says very little about you or the object of your supposed affection. There's nothing descriptive about this form of "liking," and perhaps that's the point. Maybe we're being encouraged to feel just generally, lightly positive about things; maybe this vague warmth has some value. After all, wouldn't internecine poster-on-poster violence harsh the Yelp vibe? Who wants to court such negativity? Why not luxuriate in this web of relations, of mutual liking and infinite, linked backslapping? Why not like something together?

Last year, in an insightful and erudite essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz considered the varied meanings of "friendship" and the effect things like Facebook might be having on these types of connections. This paragraph stood out to me:

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost--the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish "community" and the medical "community" and the "community" of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we're lucky, a "sense" of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience. And now friendship, which arose to its present importance as a replacement for community, is going the same way. We have "friends," just as we belong to "communities." Scanning my Facebook page gives me, precisely, a "sense" of connection. Not an actual connection, just a sense.

So we have a "sense" of friendship, and it's being articulated in accordance with someone's business model. But what does it then mean to have an enemy? How do you dislike or even hate something or someone, when you are probably a mere Facebook friend or two removed?

Or maybe, in the case of LeBron James and his decision to join his friends on the Miami Heat, the rules of friendship and the logic of business have become interchangeable. James' decision has earned him a torrent of abuse, and yesterday, no less than Michael Jordan dismissed these "kids" by offering that he was more interested in beating his rivals than joining with them. "But that's ... things are different," Jordan remarked. "I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys." Things are, indeed, different nowadays. Players rarely try and strangle each other, most of them become friends years before entering the professional ranks, and many of them studied Jordan not only for his on-court success but the acumen of his marketing team, as well. Without getting into the intricacies of the doubtlessly sincere Wade-Bosh-James friendship, the version of the NBA that Jordan describes seems to perfect embody the logic of the Facebook age: better to unite in some kind of possibly empty, David Stern-facilitated harmony than diss a friend of a friend. And it's a very of-the-moment way for a media entity to be—the center of a network, rarely all that polarizing, appealing enough, etc. It's like those fitted caps embroidered with every NBA team logo: non-commitment in the name of some greater amity. There's nothing profitable about having enemies.

I hope I don't sound like I'm nostalgic for the olden days of scaled-down hooligan nationalisms. I'm more interested in this metaphors and meanings of "clicking 'like,'" not tossing flares at the away fans. All of which is a circuitous way of saying that the LeBron Moment reminded me of the difference between being unlikeable and truly hateable, in the modern, pop-marketplace sense of both words. The unlikeable merely fails at the goal of being liked--think Jimmy Fallon on a weak night. You admire the object of your hatred for eliciting such depth of feeling: hate on 50 Cent, Jim Jones or Kobe Bryant, it makes no difference, they posses an old school kind of swagger. LeBron's entire persona rests on being merely likable: the entire reason for his television special was to have his decision be understood, to come across as someone who had struggled through all of this as any of us might have. What he has done is become unlikeable. To be hated? It takes a certain temperament—a certain luxury, too—to court hatred, to not give a fuck what anyone thinks. And LeBron doesn't have it.

A measure of how different things are nowadays was James' decision, shortly before his Decision, to join Twitter. We have unparalleled access to movie stars, athletes, politicians, etc. They seem more approachable than in days bygone, even if we are merely one of thirty-thousand, following a brand. And so we have new ways of imagining ourselves within this constellation of stars. We can like each other; we can bask in some approximation of "friendship." A politician comes across as just another guy, a rapper seems like someone with whom you could hang out. Perhaps, like Kanye West, who attended James' Decision party, they're just misunderstood and their blog—their ALL CAPS direct line to the people—lets them really be who they want to be. There is a value to being merely "likable" in this sense, to being "cool" enough to inspire a random person to click a link. A few thousand people liking something in unison, a band of followers skimming your 140-character missives: brands have been built upon less.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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