An Instagram Without Likes

Instagram allows users to quickly, easily and widely share snapshots from their own lives. In so doing, the platform evokes feelings of both intimacy and inadequacy. The platform is aware of the central role that feelings play in all of this. Users show each other approval through a heart-shaped icon. But that could soon change. Instagram and other social media platforms are reconsidering the fundamental nature of “likes.” Instagram is testing out its new approach in Canada. Users there can see their likes, but the likes are not public. If this rollout comes to pass globally, it could help and also hurt people across the digital ecosystem. 

Instagram’s “private like counts” will transform the experiences of users who are scrolling through their feeds. Their focus will be shifted from vanity metrics to the content itself. Ideally, this will create a less pressurized environment and place an emphasis on the value of the conversation. Users will respond to the thing they’re seeing – the picture, the writing, the expression – and not to herd mentality. 

Will influencers dislike the erasure of likes?

For some influencers, likes are a valuable asset that they can leverage. Some of them are worried about potential interference to their dealflow. They’re concerned that it might be harder to work out the details of partnerships if their “influence” isn’t readily visible. But likes are not the only relevant metric. Brands often want to evaluate other analytics as well before cutting a check. 

Ostensibly, an Instagram without likes would be good for mental health. But it might also mean that the platforms themselves would get a bigger piece of the ad revenue pie. If it’s harder to spot credible influencers, brands might just buy ads through the platform. They might wholly trust its algorithm and accept its rates, instead of trying to identify and chase specific influencers within specific verticals. 

Even if this is part of the platform’s underlying motive, the optics look promising for Instagram. Social media has come under fire for its role in anxiety, depression, cyberbullying and suicides. When young people, in particular, express themselves and get no likes, they sometimes feel publicly invalidated or ostracized. Facebook’s recent maneuvers are meant to address privacy and mental/social health concerns. 

Recently, singer/actress/influencer Selena Gomez publicly commented on the negatives of social media at the Cannes Film Festival. 

“I would say for my generation, specifically, social media has really been terrible,” she said. Gomez noted that platforms don’t always provide people with the right information. She also pointed out that social media interactions can have devastating effects on young people who are dealing with bullying and trying to forge identities. 

A report from the Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement also cemented this point, noting that adolescence and early adulthood is a critical and potentially vulnerable time for social and emotional development. Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said that social media is “intrinsically linked to mental health.” 

However, if the less pressurized environment causes users to spend more time on Instagram, that isn’t good for mental health, either. Real world social interactions and a breath of fresh air can obviously serve as stabilizing forces. Gomez suggested that it’s important to set time limits. 

But Instagram wasn’t designed to serve the public good primarily. Like most Silicon Valley startups, it was intended for rapid growth and monetization. Time will tell whether the corporation, under current leadership, is able to reconcile different goals. 

Ryan Detert is CEO of Influential, an AI-based platform backed by IBM Watson, which received investment from global talent agency WME. His social data and conversion company matches brands with influencers. 

When asked if private like counts will make it more difficult for influencers to independently broker deals, Detert said, “I think that there will probably still be some way for the influencer to provide that [information].” 

Detert also said that if there’s pushback, Instagram might ultimately decide on an age gate approach. Users above a certain age range might be allowed to have active likes. But if the change does take effect for everyone, influencers could still find a way to broker deals. Detert suggested that influencers could provide their likes data through a screenshot or an API that gives access. 

Still, Detert understands why some influencers might be reluctant to embrace the change. He said they may have done a lot of work to get above baseline engagement rates, and they don’t want to get lumped together with influencers who have a less engaged audience. “So there are concerns obviously if it were to be obfuscated entirely,” he commented. 

He emphasized that there are multiple variables that drive sales. Attention metrics and video completion rates also matter. “There are a number of ways to validate the value of an influencer beyond just likes,” he said. 

The shift might also help by punishing bot farms and influencers who try to game the system. Detert said, “There is and always will be a level of bot fraud – people that are buying fake engagements. Those people aren’t incentivized to buy fake engagements if their engagements are more obfuscated.” 

But could this change also bring about a dip in content quality? Some growing micro influencers aren’t making money yet, but they’re motivated by the idea that they will eventually be able to monetize their accounts. If they believe that their pathway towards revenue has been suddenly cut off, will they continue to create and post awesome content? 

“That’s the biggest issue with any platform. Creators leave and go to places where they can monetize,” said Detert. 

At this point, a lot has been invested in the platform. Many influencers won’t call it quits on Instagram, absent definitive proof that things have shifted against them. 

“Don’t make assumptions that it will hurt your deal flow,” advised Detert. 

If it does produce a negative impact, Detert said that influencers will likely migrate to platforms with built-in monetization, like YouTube.

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