Sherwood Park native designs an app that disables the likes
illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler
Every day, we’re inundated with likes. Like this. Head to our Facebook page and press like. Follow us on Twitter. Double tap. Even the things we don’t like, we like. Likes have become the social currency of our generation, the way in which personal worth is calculated.
Sherwood Park native Dan Zimmerman wanted to question that value system. What exactly is the value of a like? What does it mean? So he created LikeBlockr, an app that, well, does just that – blocks likes. It’s a platform without any of those value measurements.
“Everything is judged on these levels of authority that I don’t think tell the whole story,” he says. “You have numbers, and you have grades, and you have salaries – all these things that project value often go undisputed.”
LikeBlockr is specific to Instagram. Once the app is downloaded and the user logs on to Instagram, he or she no longer sees likes or followers’ accounts. But it isn’t just an app. It’s a piece of art, designed for a public space – in this case, the app store. It was funded, in part, by the Calgary Biennial, a guerrilla exhibition of art in public spaces. Founder and curator Steven Cottingham says the exhibition is about taking over venues typically reserved for advertising to promote conceptual work with a social-justice agenda.
“[LikeBlockr] questions our reliance on conservative metrics and the assumption that quantifiable data is the best way of doing things,” Cottingham wrote in an email.
One person double-tapping a photo on Instagram has the same effect as someone who takes the time to thoroughly look at it, judge it, and make the call on whether he or she truly “likes it.” Cottingham says it’s no different from the voting process. Someone who casts a ballot after a year of research and campaigning has the same amount of say as someone who showed up at the last minute and picked a candidate based on the sound of his or her name.
Zimmerman received a grant of $500 from the Biennial to build the app, which was outsourced to a developer in India. The rest came out of his pocket. LikeBlockr is free to download, because charging money for it would defeat the purpose of creating a value-free system. But Zimmerman does keep track of the download number, which reached 6,000 in early July.
“It’s funny to use numbers to be like, ‘Oh, are we successful?’ Are download counts and five-star reviews any different than likes?” he says.
But success was what inspired the app – or maybe more accurately, envy of success.
Zimmerman was 25 years old when he first heard Drake’s song, “The Motto” – the song that spurred the “You Only Live Once” tattoo, meme and hashtag craze. But YOLO wasn’t what stuck with Zimmerman – it was the lyric: “25 sittin’ on 25 mill.”
He thought, “I’m 25, and I have nowhere near $25 million.”
“It led me down this rabbit hole,” the now 28-year-old says. “I found his Instagram profile and I could tangibly tell the amount of success he had by how many followers beside his name.
“I could take the number of followers he had and subtract the amount of followers I had, and I would have this large number that would measure my inadequacy.”
Zimmerman grew up in a blue-collar Sherwood Park family. His first taste of public art was a prank played in his final year of high school. He and some friends tied a bunch of white bedsheets together, painted a picture of Vladimir Lenin in the middle with the name of his high school and the year underneath, and unfurled it from a roof.
It was a prank, but Zimmerman says it opened his eyes to the concept of art in a public space. Initially, his dream was to design snowboards, but those aspirations changed after he completed a degree at the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2012 and moved to Vancouver. From a band called The ArabSpring to a giant installation of his brain and now LikeBlockr, Zimmerman’s art evolved to focus on one thing: changing perceptions.
“I guess I’m still figuring out exactly what I do. I don’t really see myself as a painter, or a filmmaker, or a musician, or even an installation artist.
A self-proclaimed master of nothing and jack of all trades, Zimmerman’s day job consists of driving a van and distributing clean needles and crack pipes to drug users in Vancouver’s seediest neighbourhoods. Every day, he deals with addiction at its worst, and while he doesn’t like to compare the work he does with drugs to “likes,” he says there are similarities.
Zimmerman knows that those red push notifications, that “ding-da-ding” on your smartphone signalling some sort of new like or follower, have an effect on your psyche. When someone likes your picture or post on social media, your brain sends your body a shot of serotonin – a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood.
Zimmerman has LikeBlockr on his iPhone, but doesn’t use it religiously. Every now and then, he’ll log back on to his Instagram and check the number of likes and followers he has, which is still nowhere near that of Drizzy’s. But the app has made him more cognizant of what he posts, when he posts it, and why he posts it. It has made him post less, and it has made him appreciate others’ posts for what they are.
“It’s kind of scary and kind of uncomfortable,” he says. “But, if you feel strongly enough to post it, it shouldn’t necessarily matter if someone else likes it. All that matters is that you think it deserves a place to live online and there it is.”