The decision could have a positive impact on the way people use the platform, but harm those trying to use it professionally
Instagram is finally rolling out the removal of “likes” that it’s been teasing for a while, in an effort to get your friends to “focus on the photos and videos you share”. The move follows accusations that Instagram affects users’ self esteem, something Instagram chief Adam Mosseri alluded to in a statement: “We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they're getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people that they care about,” he said.
Now, as much as we can try to blame Instagram for our thirst for validation, it’s not quite patient zero: we have always craved validation online. 13 years ago we were offering “PC4PC” on Myspace, a picture comment in return for one back. A deal: if you make me look and feel seen and validated online, I’ll do it for you.
But things have changed since Myspace, and a lot of people use Instagram professionally, using the numbers they accumulate to prove their worth to potential clients and employers. Everyone from models to musicians to hairdressers use the platform to promote themselves, and likes are pretty integral to that.
“As much as we can try to blame Instagram for our thirst for validation, it’s not quite patient zero: we have always craved validation online. 13 years ago we were offering ‘PC4PC’ on Myspace”
Reactions, naturally have been mixed: there’s been some pushback against the decision, which is currently only in place in countries including Australia and Japan. For the most part, however, the reaction has been surprisingly positive. This is perhaps because Instagram likes and the comparison they drive have long been blamed for affecting our mental health online.
While we can’t blame Instagram for all our self-esteem issues, there’s no denying that the decision could have a positive impact on the way we use social media. While we’ll still be able to see our own likes if we choose to, it’ll perhaps make our usage of the app more experience and less numbers-driven. Still, it might have a major impact on those trying to use Instagram for work. So what could removing likes really mean, for both professional and “normal” users when it rolls out more widely?
IT MIGHT BOOST A CULTURE OF QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Firstly, maybe it really will prompt a positive shift. If we know that the amount of likes we get won’t be seen by anyone, maybe – just maybe – we’ll start posting for ourselves, rather than for the clout. Instagram started life as a decidedly un-curated app, but has ended up becoming the *most* curated. Things like our “most-liked” image have started to matter more than posting what we want. If users, professional or otherwise, know that a certain shot rakes in more likes, we’re more likely to post them for that sweet dopamine hit.
Influencer Mattie believes that the decision will “prevent the repetitive content we’ve been seeing over the last two years”. You know the ones: leaning against a millennial pink wall, maybe sitting on a swan inflatable. Mattie believes that while removing likes won’t prevent copying or repetitive content, she does believe it will decrease. Perhaps she’s right – even for those of us who don’t use Instagram for work, the pressure to emulate the professionals is very real. If we don’t have to worry about anyone seeing our ten likes, maybe Instagram will go back to being fun and genuinely spontaneous photos of our mates.
ACCOUNTS WITH FAKE FOLLOWERS WILL BE HARDER TO CATCH
Likes aren’t the only way we measure our worth on Instagram – even the best of us keep half an eye on our following counts, too, and until that’s eradicated too we’re likely to carry on measuring ourselves that way. For influencers and other people for whom Instagram is their job, that big follower count says a lot about their importance. But it doesn’t tell the whole story: for those seeking out users with a big reach for professional purposes, the key word is actually engagement. Someone with a million followers is useless to a company if they only get a hundred likes or a small handful of comments on each post: they don’t really have any influence, and there’s every chance they bought their followers. But if the likes disappear, engagement is harder to gauge without special tools – making it easier for scammers to thrive.
IT’LL BE HARDER FOR INFLUENCERS TO PROVE THEIR WORTH
Typically, social media managers and influencers will use a record of the numbers they can accumulate on Instagram to prove to potential clients that they can reach a ton of people. It’s no different to any other numbers-driven game, like sales or advertising, but it is entirely dependent on a platform that’s constantly fluctuating and fucking with their income. Without the likes to prove engagement, it could be harder for potential clients to see their worth immediately, but at worst, it could make their work completely worthless – will potential employers want to use social media marketing if nobody is going to like it?
However, Mattie believes that the decision will force PRs and companies to look at reach and impressions: “so all those people who look at your photos but never engage with them will start to come in handy.” She says “it will force PRs to look for accounts they genuinely love, rather than look for the best statistics.” Urszula, who is a social media manager and influencer, tells me that in her job she will be looking at other things, like “asking for screenshots of insights and post performances.” That includes saves and comments, something that she already looks for in stories.
“The Instagram algorithm has decreased for the past few months dramatically. Hiding likes really helps me out as an influencer. It helps me worry less about my engagement rate” – Urzula
THE ALGORITHM IS FUCKING EVERYTHING UP ANYWAY
A huge point of contention for influencers in recent months has been the algorithm. Since the death of the chronological timeline, Instagram’s constant experimentation with ways to bring you the posts on your feed has led to increasingly low reach for both normal users and influencers. The removal of likes might actually not be a negative thing, as at the minute it often isn’t a true reflection of an account’s impact or following. Urszula tells me that as a fashion blogger, she believes the new change is a positive thing: “The Instagram algorithm has decreased for the past few months dramatically. Hiding likes really helps me out as an influencer.” She tells me, adding: “It helps me worry less about my engagement rate in terms of likes, but it will definitely affect the ways collaborations work with brands.”
IT MIGHT REDUCE COMPARISON
Of course, the foremost idea for removing likes is that it will reduce comparison and negative feelings of jealousy for regular users. Binny, a social media manager, tells me that she welcomes the change. “It will reduce comparison of others, mental health issues relating to people being obsessed with how many (or little) likes a photo gets.” Olli, owner of digital marketing company The Coco Creative, agrees. She says she doesn’t care for the amount of energy we attach to likes, and it will “even the playing field a little bit”. While you can still see how many likes you personally get, Olli believes that “it’s less in your face.” If you’re prone to getting down about how much engagement you get online or how much someone else does, it might make you feel a little better. And for influencers, perhaps genuine reach or impact as measured in other ways – like affiliate link click throughs – will be used to measure employability.
BUT REMEMBER – IT ISN’T ACTUALLY A CURE FOR JEALOUSY
Let’s say that Instagram is actually the prime suspect in driving online comparison and jealousy – maybe, for you, it is. For me, the main plague on my mental health online is Twitter, where every writer on the planet seems to be more successful than me and where we are constantly talking about triggering topics. But if that plague for you is Instagram, a lot of what makes the platform tough on mental health isn’t looking at a photo and seeing that it has 2,000 likes. It’s what’s in the photo: maybe it’s a conventionally attractive, skinny girl in a bikini by a pool seemingly on her 14th holiday that month. Maybe it’s a minimalistic but attractive home with nothing but two plants and a really expensive sofa. Removing likes won’t alter the fact that the competition that Instagram drives comes from the content itself rather than how the site functions, so the best thing to do if you’re affected is: log off.