If you’ve ever posted on Instagram, you’ll relate to the sweet torture that comes in the aftermath as you wait for the ‘likes’ to roll in; each one a metaphorical pat on the back.
Receiving a ‘like’ on Instagram has been likened to the same high that people get from drinking alcohol or smoking a cigarette. These experiences all produce dopamine – a chemical that’s associated with pleasure. Consequently, social media can also develop into an addiction, with people doing whatever they can to receive validation online.
This experience could soon become a thing of the past, on Instagram at least. In May, Facebook announced that it would be testing a so-called ‘like count ban’ on the platform, starting in Canada. Just last week, Instagram announced that the test would also be rolling out to other countries including Japan, Italy, Ireland, and Australia. This means that users here will no longer be able to see the number of likes or video views on a post. They can click through to see the number of likes on their own posts, but not on posts from others.
So, why has Instagram taken this measure, and what could it mean for influencers who have built entire careers based on their popularity on the platform?
A focus on sales-driven metrics?
According to Instagram, the decision to hide likes and video views stems from “wanting your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share. Not how many likes they get.”
We’re currently running a test that hides the total number of likes and video views for some people in the following countries:
✅ New Zealand pic.twitter.com/2OdzpIUBka
— Instagram (@instagram) July 17, 2019
But while this has obvious benefits for general users of the platform – in the reduction of social pressure – the advantages are less evident for influencers and the brands that partner with them. This is because, traditionally, influencers have relied on likes as an engagement method, which brands also use as an indication of value and potential sales.
It’s important to note that the changes will not affect measurement tools that businesses and creators can use on Instagram, meaning the like count and other engagement metrics will still be accessible – just not by regular users.
However, some influencers have still criticised the decision to remove the like count, as it means that there will be no immediately visible indication of how successful a post has been, or any instant ‘reward’ for their hard work. It will also mean follower counts and other less obvious metrics may be the first point of consideration for brands – before and if they choose to delve further using Instagram’s measurement tools.
The reliance on likes does highlight a wider problem within influencer marketing, which is the fact that so-called ‘vanity metrics’ may not be trustworthy. A recent study (analysing over 4,000 influencers) found that 52% of UK influencer accounts have bought followers, comments, or used bots in the past, with 21% of this group saying they would do it again.
So, with Instagram now taking away visible likes, the platform has effectively taken away the ability to fake popularity (in this format at least). For influencers, this means that more tangible and sales-driven metrics could potentially come to the forefront, with brands placing increased importance on click-throughs, as well as sales online and in-store, as a measure of campaign success.
While it’s unclear whether the like ban will affect the algorithm – theoretically the most-liked posts will still be the most visible on the platform – it means that deeper engagement could have a bigger impact, as comments and re-posts may be seen as more meaningful.
So, while influencer marketing could become fairer on one hand, it could also become more difficult for new influencers looking to grow and build brand interest on the other (without the like count helping posts to go viral).
A shift to other formats?
As a result of the change, we could begin to see both influencers and advertisers move away from traditional content formats on Instagram. Brands might worry that, without a clear indication of how many likes a post has, users will be less inclined to interact with it (meaning posts will do less well overall, and engagement will be skewed).
Consequently, brands might be more inclined to invest in paid ads to ensure that they are getting in front of as many users as possible.
For Instagram itself, this has an obvious monetary advantage. However, brands have been investing more in Instagram ads for a while, with the reason always being increased reach and awareness.
Meanwhile, it’s also been suggested that the decision to remove the like count is Instagram’s way of pushing the Stories format, with short-form video ads also being an effective (and guaranteed) way for brands to appear in user’s feeds.
More authentic content
Another argument in favour of the test (as well as making the platform fairer in relation to fake engagement), is that it will also result in better quality content.
This is because influencers will feel less need to create content based on what is ‘trending’ or what typically gets the most likes. This information will be stripped away to some degree, meaning influencers may veer towards creating authentic content that is aligned with their own creativity or interests – as well as those of their audience.
For brands, this can only be a positive thing, as authentic content is commonly proven to be the most successful (in terms of long-term influence and sales). According to Econsultancy’s Influencer 2020 report, 61% of consumers express a preference for influencers who create authentic, engaging content, while 70% of marketers say that authenticity and transparency is key to influencer marketing success.
The like count has already been satirised by the platform’s users themselves – the ‘world record egg’ became the most-liked post on Instagram with over 53 million likes in early 2019.
The success of the post proves that ‘likes’ can often be a purely shallow or meaningless indication of success.
Of course, the idea that only high quality content will succeed without the like button could be rather rose-tinted, as the results of the trial of not yet known. There’s also the danger that removing the like count could damage overall engagement on Instagram, with users potentially moving away to other platforms where engagement is still visible, and this type of validation is still offered.
That being said, there is also the argument that taking away likes could encourage a greater sense of freedom, with fans and influencers feeling less pressure to create the ‘perfect’ Instagram post, and therefore more willingness to create more frequent and consistent content overall.
A bid for better mental health
Encouraging users to post with abandon is most likely to be Instagram’s main goal. However, the change does have another benefit, which conveniently aligns with Facebook’s aim to create healthier experiences for users of its platforms.
There’s been a lot of research into the negative effects of social media in recent times, particularly on young people and self esteem. While an instant flood of likes can boost a user’s confidence, it can also have the opposite effect if a post receives very few or no likes at all.
Instagram’s decision to test hidden likes is certainly a positive step towards combatting the association between mental health issues and social media. As well as tools to encourage mindful usage, earlier this month, Instagram also announced the trial of a new feature to prevent online bullying, which involves double checking if a user really wants to comment something nasty.
Interestingly, while some influencers have bemoaned the removal of likes, others have suggested that the potential benefits for mental health outweigh this, and that something needs to be done to prevent future generations from valuing themselves solely in relation to social media success.
In an industry where it was becoming all the more difficult to separate shallow engagement from real success, Instagram’s decision – while a shock for influencers in the short-term – could help to regulate and improve the industry even further in the long run. And help to make us all a bit more rational, of course.