TASTE AND REPUTATION IN THE LIKABILITY ERA
There’s a lot of talk about the reputation economy nowadays, since online reputation already plays an important role for companies, brands and professionals, and is expected to play an even greater role in the future as a bargaining chip. In a world where virtual interaction seems set to predominate over physical interaction, reputation – i.e. what users say online about services, products and people – can make the difference since it’s often the only variable (or at least one of the most relevant) able to drive a potential customer to purchase. Digital reputation is often the outcome of a system of assessments and judgements (social rating) that exploits the virality of posts on social networks, more and more destined to replace the official information sources in terms of ease of access, effectiveness, and speed of consultation. The assessment – to all intents and purposes a "taste judgment" – and its shareability on social networks determines the influence of reputation ratings.
Nothing new so far, considering that Publilius Syrus, back in the 1st century BC, stated that "a good reputation is more valuable than money". But, during the centuries that separate us from this maxim of Sententiae, at least two socio-cultural factors have significantly increased the value of reputation, giving it a level of power that would have been inconceivable before the standardization of taste as a necessary condition for the democratization of consumption.
Starting with the first factor, "good taste," we can refer to the civilization process undergone by the notion of taste, which in the 18th- century debate – taste becoming more and more a metaphor, as opposed to being merely a sense – finds its epistemological foundation in aesthetics as a nascent discipline: postulating the a priori existence of a universal faculty allows one to discern and discuss taste as a normative univocality that excludes the de gustibus (in the plural) argument. So good taste comes to light, providing the middle class with a criterion for social recognition (besides money) to legitimatize the status of people of quality for a sphere of wealthy persons whose reputation (unlike aristocracy and nobility) is not guaranteed by rank nor blood anymore. As Luca Vercelloni wrote in his book The Invention of Taste, "consumers themselves became the sole measure of the common ground for taste and its communication" and "those able to exercise a comparative taste coincided […] more precisely with the select circle of those able to count on a special, refined sense of beauty. In other words, those with the experience to express judgment values". The aesthetization of taste guarantees a universal foundation for those "spiritual guidelines for appropriate behavior" upon which the reputation of the emerging bourgeoisie is based, allowing the middle class to assume as a transcendental value what is in fact just the outcome of social conformity.
The second factor takes us to our time, to the era of social networks and the potential e-democracy of taste, where it’s legitimate – or rather a custom – to become indignant about indoctrinations and bigotries, where everybody builds his own reputation (through self-branding or personal branding), where there’s no distinction between good taste and bad taste, there are just different opinions that anyone can express without restriction, quickly and for free through a global tool elevating each of us to the level of a professional critic: proof of this is the increasingly shared habit of posting and reviewing every experience of our public and private lives (from politics to restaurants to shopping). Is it the revenge of the de gustibus (in the plural) spontaneity? Or just an even more sophisticated means of conditioning taste socially and commercially?
In a New York Times article (Living in the Cult of Likability), Bret Easton Ellis states: "Facebook encouraged users to 'like' things, and because it was a platform where many people branded themselves on the social Web for the first time, the impulse was to follow the Facebook dictum and present an idealized portrait of their lives – a nicer, friendlier, duller self. And it was this burgeoning of the likability cult and the dreaded notion of 'relatability' that ultimately reduced everyone to a kind of neutered clockwork orange, enslaved to the corporate status quo. To be accepted we have to follow an upbeat morality code where everything must be liked and everybody’s voice respected, and any person who has a negative opinion – a dislike – will be shut out of the conversation".
Since Ellis’ article (December 2015) something has changed at Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network has finally confronted the frequent user demand for a dislike button: most social addicts have wanted, at least once in their life, to give the thumbs down in order to express opposition to a post, a picture, or a particularly infelicitous statement. How has Facebook responded? By introducing "feelings": love, laughter, surprise, sadness, and anger expressed via emoticons (Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, Angry). Zuckerberg claims they have intentionally avoided a thumbs-down button so as not to turn Facebook into a permanent survey. But, apart from the official explanation, aren’t those emoticons reminiscent of the process of "laying down the rules for sensibility" and of the emotional anatomy of the perceiver to explain the domestication of taste? Isn't the ability to record the posters' feelings only a slightly more refined tool for collecting user data by monitoring emotional responses more clearly? That is, quoting Ellis, aren’t they just an even more effective way to be "branded, targeted and data-mined?"