Almanac (Post) Modern Life: Interpreting Likes



Of all of the things said by AFL players, coaches and administrators this season so far, it’s a quote from Gillon McLachlan on 3AW that I keep returning to:


“The feedback I’ve got is that those players have strong faith and it was almost an instinctive thing to like it without really understanding what that individual post was about.”


The CEO was talking, of course, about Gary Ablett and Matthew Kennedy both clicking ‘like’ on Israel Folau’s Instagram post which warned homosexuals and others that “hell awaits” them. Folau has since been sacked by Australian Rugby, however other than a stern talking to, the AFL did not sanction Ablett or Kennedy, both of whom unliked Folau’s post.


As an almost 40-year-old who has been on social networking sites for over two decades, I feel both dramatically more and dramatically less experienced on social media than today’s 20-somethings and teenagers. In 1997, I was invited onto, an early social networking site which aimed to connect users with everyone on the site who was within six degrees of them according to the six degrees of separation theory. A uni student at the time, I found myself willingly diving into a number of online experiences that were pioneering at the time, even if they are stereotypical now: chatting with strangers online, wondering how much of myself to reveal on my profile, and determining how to safely set up a date with a girl I’d only met through the site.


Since then, like many inhabitants of what are now the elder online generations, my exploration of new social media platforms reached a natural conclusion. In my case, I hit the wall after joining Facebook and Twitter but before engaging with Instagram or Snapchat.


This has left me in a seemingly paradoxical state in which I am both comfortable on social media and yet utterly flummoxed by the nuances of some aspects of online communication.


It’s this lack of understanding that leaves me incredibly uncomfortable when thinking about the online world. For McLachlan’s comment feels emblematic of the New World of 2019 – a world in which for the first time, I feel completely unable to determine what so many simple pieces of communication mean and how they should be interpreted.


Consider what sounds like a relatively simple question that was at the heart of what might have been the AFL’s biggest scandal of 2019: “What does liking a post mean”?


Prior to McLachlan’s comment on Ablett and Kennedy, I had always simply assumed that if you were to like a post on Facebook or Instagram, you were professing to support all aspects of the post. However, McLachlan’s comment immediately made some sense to me. Sit at any train station for but a few minutes and you’ll see people mindlessly scrolling through their Facebook walls or Insta feeds, quickly appraising posts and clicking ‘like’ where they deem appropriate. The process of liking posts often presents as a seemingly mindless activity, hardly intertwined with deep or considered political thought. Indeed, it’s such a calming experience for people that Binky, a fake social media app, now exists so that people can enjoy the experience for scrolling through and liking posts without the burden of being involved in communicating with real people.


Ablett himself responded to the controversy via Instagram, stating:


“I love ALL people regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality.


I have always admired how strong Izzy is in his faith, it is not easy to share faith in the public sphere, and this is why I initially ‘liked’ his post.”


It wouldn’t surprise at all if this was a legitimate explanation.


But, of course, there’s an equally reasonable explanation that is far more dangerous for Ablett and the AFL. For consider what you need to believe if you are to trust McLachlan when he says that Ablett didn’t understand what Folau’s post was about. You have to believe that Ablett – a 35 year-old father who has been an AFL captain at one club, been in a highly respected leadership group at another club, and who has experienced the best media training the AFL has to offer – didn’t take enough care to realise when he hit ‘like’ on a 16 word Instagram post that it said that all homosexuals were bound for hell.


And if you find that difficult to believe, then you have no choice but to wonder if Gary Ablett supports every aspect of Folau’s post after all.


These contrasting potential explanations as to why Ablett liked Folau’s post make McLachlan’s comments on Ablett and Kennedy appear simultaneously sensible and bizarre. We must accept the reasonableness of the argument that when a person clicks ‘like’, they may not have given the post they are responding to much thought at all – they may not even have read it completely – and thus, they might not actually agree with the whole sentiment and meaning of the post. And yet, we must also accept that clicking ‘like’ might mean that they do agree with the whole sentiment of the post.


Of course, the impossibility of certainty when it comes to interpreting likes online is similar, in many ways, to the pantomimed booing of Ablett at AFL stadiums this season. Other than those who voice their opinions loudly in the crowd – “He’s a cheap shot artist –  shoulda been suspended!” or “Go to Hell with Folau, you bigot!” – most boos come with no nuance or context. In many ways, the meaning the booer intended is irrelevant, as the meaning must be interpreted and held in the mind of the beholder.


What does it mean to like a post? I have no clue. At the moment, it appears to mean whatever each of us thinks it means.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.



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About Edward P. Olsen

EPO is equally passionate about sport and sports writing. While others toil away at the local indoor sports centre re-living their futile childhood dreams of being one of the best of all time, he types away at home re-living his futile childhood dream of being one of the world’s great columnists.


  1. E.regnans says

    G’day, EP Olsen.
    I agree – there are many ways to interpret what might superficially be presented as a binary choice.
    The whole exercise of interpretation is fraught, I think.
    Because of the difficulty in interpreting intent.
    (e.g. I understand that some people “like” posts as a way of bookmarking – making them easier to later find).

    It seems there are three steps here.
    1. we have a broad spectrum of life experience and nuance from one party, who reads.
    2. they click “like” (or equivalent) – based on their own rationale.
    3. another party then interprets the “like” – and in their interpretation, they place it somewhere on a broad spectrum of their own life experience and nuance – according to their own agenda.

    Step 2 – the binary choice – is a crude communication tool.

    Writing this has me considering other crude communication tools that are interpreted many ways by vested interests.
    I think of election results, for example.
    “We won a mandate” for every conceivable policy proposal is an obvious example of a party interpreting a binary choice to their advantage.
    Communication so interesting.
    Particularly as control on messaging is ever-more exercised.

    Very thought-provoking. thanks.

  2. I think you’re onto something EPO.

    You’ve lobbed at the post-modern condition.

    We are in the grip of an ideology that demands more scrutiny than it gets.

  3. EPO- great article. Regarding the fake/ therapeutic app Binky: this terrified/ amused/ saddened me in equal measures.

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