To Like or Not to Like, the Eternal Social Media Question

You may have heard that Instagram is experimenting with its functionality. In July the popular social media platform began eliminating likes from posts in seven countries – the U.S. was not one of them – “claiming the feature will help to reduce its associated impacts on mental health and societal pressure.” 

The experiment hasn’t been running for long. Digital influencers who use the likes as an engagement metric when marketing their services to potential sponsors and advertising partners, have mixed feelings.

“Affected influencers have already noticed their posts are getting fewer likes and less engagement, pushing their posts farther down in Instagram’s algorithmic feed. Some have expressed concerns it’ll affect their reach and ability to grow on the platform. 

“Others say that the popularity-contest-style pressure associated with Instagram likes will just shift to another one of the many metrics measured on the platform.”

I can certainly see where the concern comes from. Algorithms have always been a mystery to me. I understand them in theory, but the lack of transparency about the criteria by which they run and the frequency with which they change has relegated them to “what we want at any given moment” status in my mind. If likes do indeed factor into social media alogrithms, I would hope Instagram has considered that in the experiment, knowing so many use the platform to make a living. 

Online search magic not withstanding, eliminating likes as a validation gauge is definitely an opportunity for great content to rise to the top of the social media pile. In an online era that cries out frequently about its desire for authenticity, the proof could well be in the pudding if Instagram discontinues the likes functionality entirely, and digital influencers are forced to use other metrics to help them craft audience-friendly content and measure engagement.

For instance, if experiments like this continue, and Instagram continues to refine its platform, people might not be as prone to oversexualize themselves to get attention in exchange for a ton of likes on each photo. It could add some much needed depth if people focus less on appearance and more on substance. But you have to consider that even though likes are no longer available to the public, the content creators can still see them. 

Will we, and by we I mean content creators, rise to the opportunity once the power and motivation associated with that herd mentality is removed? Will we experiment more, or create the content that makes us feel good and embodies our brands and relays the messages we want to put into the world, or nah?

That’s utopia thinking though. There’s a practical side to the social media game as well that we can’t forget. For many, Instagram is a key business tool – or a business full stop – and it can be an extremely profitable one for digital influencers with a large following. Removing likes reduces engagement, and when you factor in the algorithms it could potentially slow overall growth and reach as well. All of this reduces their earning potential. 

Of course, some might say, who needs money when your ass is crazy as hell? Don’t answer that. But part of the motivation behind the Instagram experiment is the prevalence of research suggesting a disturbing link between social media use and depression. Social media leaders like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have openly said they would not include the like functionality at all if they could do things again. 

On one hand, I think it’s sad that social media platforms have to execute these superficial tweaks for the public’s mental health. We should know better, right? But that’s what I say, and who am I? 

I click like a lot, to show support for certain types of content, and to help the influencers that I follow because I know those likes help to elevate their businesses. I have also been known to withhold a like if I don’t care for the person or brand behind a post. But my self-esteem is quite strong. It’s in no way wrapped up in likes as validation.

It’s a big problem though, isn’t it? Society’s need for external validation and our collective desire to be liked by strangers, if no one at all, is also strong. Social media has only exacerbated that. I can’t ignore that it is socially responsible of the platforms’ leaders to change their tools – hopefully – for the better, for the public good. 

I’ll be following the experiments to see where the platforms land at the end. If the likes go the way of the dodo, it will be interesting to see how content trends change. As a content marketing strategist it will obviously impact how I advise my clients. But more importantly, I’ll be watching with interest to see how the public responds to any changes. After all, social media isn’t just a way with which to connect to an audience. It’s also a huge social experiment in general.

What do you think? If likes went away, would it impact how you interact on Instagram or other social media platforms?  

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