The “Unlikable” Social Media Photo

We all know what they look like.

You’re browsing through Facebook or Instagram, catching up on the happenings of the day. Oh look, there’s a photo of your cousin….looks like she got a new puppy. You “like” it. Why not?–the like costs you nothing and may engender you a little goodwill for the holidays. Maybe you even really like the picture. You scroll a little more down the page, and, sure enough, there’s your friend’s mom who you’ve talked to all of two times. Apparently she has cleaned up her grandkid’s toys TWICE today already. Wow! You scroll down a little further. You see a political rant from the latest Facebook constitutional scholar and ignore it. Down a little more. Oh look, there’s the newest hip progressive Christian blog post making the rounds–this one is on why churches should allow pot smoking in their services! Better see what that is all ab…oh it’s from a 21 year old still living at their parents’ house…pass.

And then you see it. It’s innocuous at first. It’s just a picture of a girl. She looks nice; it’s a good shot of her, you think. And you know her, so you move your mouse pointer to “like” it, but you stop just short. You see, the picture is posted by a guy, and it’s a picture of his girlfriend and it’s accompanied by a comment like, “So lucky!!!” or “Can she be any hotter?!” If you’re a guy, you have just entered a gray area: should you like the photo, or should you leave it alone?

Welcome to what I like to call the “unlikable photo” dilemma, common among users of Facebook and Instagram alike. Let’s explore a few of the contours of the dilemma. First, the dilemma is NOT about the photo. The photo itself is usually unassuming. Except in circumstances where the girl is posing in a swimsuit or something, the picture is not the issue. Without the comment, the photo itself would often be very likeable. Second, the dilemma is arguably more pronounced for guys than for girls, but it can go both ways. I would argue that guys are more likely to post comments about the physical appearance of their significant other.

A decision has to be made, of course. A “like” under these circumstances can be particularly toxic precisely because it can mean so many things. Let’s run a quick hypothetical. The photo is of a girl standing in front of an outdoor Christmas tree in the cold, and the caption, written by her boyfriend or husband reads, “She really heats up the cold night air! #hot”.


In these specific circumstances, a like can mean any number of things. It could mean:

1. “I am liking the photo because I agree that your girlfriend is really hot.”

2. “I am liking the photo because I just like the general picture and I think it’s  a good picture of her.”

3. “I am liking the photo because I think your comment about your girlfriend heating up the cold night air is witty.”

4. “I am liking the photo because I like your guys’ relationship; it’s really sweet.”

5. “I am liking the photo because I literally like all your pictures.”

6. “I am liking the photo because of a combination of the above factors, including potentially because I think your girlfriend is really good looking in this picture.”

But this is only half the battle. You may be “liking” the picture because of Number 4, but the boyfriend might suspect you are liking it because of Number 1. The poster has to interpret your like correctly as well! This, of course, will not be a big issue for some posters–they are simply looking for as many “likes” as possible and could not care less the reasons behind the like. But your like, especially in the right circumstances, could be interpreted wrongly, or at least raise some eyebrows.

Your “like” will also be interpreted by third parties to the photo, who will wonder why you liked it. And you never want to be in that awkward situation where you are the ONLY guy who liked a photo of a girl with a toxic caption. We all know where that can lead.

So, is all lost? Is it impossible to “like” a photo of another girl with one of these toxic captions? All is not lost, my friends. Let me give you a few guidelines for your “likes” in the future:

1. Remember, it is about the toxic caption, and NOT the picture. If it is just a picture, or a picture with a low-risk caption, like away my friends!

2. If you are extremely good friends with the couple, most the time you are safe to like the photo, even with a toxic caption. You know your motives, and they know your motives.

3. If the toxic part of the caption can be easily separated from another, non-toxic part of the caption, you are usually safe to like the photo. An example might be, “Had a great time at the derby yesterday! She looks pretty good too!”  The “Had a great time at the Derby” part of the caption is your saving grace.

4. If the photo is of a relatively close family member, you MIGHT be safe. But be careful here, because this could come across weird as well.

5. If the photo is what I like to refer to as a “Firsts” photo, you are usually safe. For example, if the couple just started dating, and this was their first picture together, it is usually accepted that the “likers” of the picture are liking it because of the new relationship.

6. If the photo is very artistic, it is well-accepted that you are probably liking the photo because of its artistic merit, even with a toxic caption. If the photo has a mere modicum of creativity, like at your own risk.

7. If you already like ALL the poster’s photos without discretion, you can be pretty sure that they are already expecting you to like this one too.

8. And finally, if the couple is early in the relationship, and you just really like the girl and want to go out with her, you might as well like the photo. Let your feelings be known to the world! Throw caution to the wind! See where it takes you!

So, there you have it. Now you can “like” or “pass on liking” with confidence. Comment below if you’ve run into a similar dilemma!

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