Point-Counterpoint: Are Social Media Likes Valuable?

TL;DR: After reports that Instagram and then Facebook are testing removing likes from public view, two Sparks consider if this is merely a test or our future in social media.

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Likes have been a social currency since Facebook first introduced the “Like” button in 2009 and others followed suite: Campaign success, even careers have hinged on engagement performance. So when Instagram announced in April that it was performing tests hiding users’ public like counts on videos and photos in seven countries, brands and influencers in particular has been a frenzy. Now its parent company is considering the same test.

As like total would still impact how the algorithm ranks posts within the feed, the change, according to Instagram, is meant for “followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.” If implemented, would this new feature make the platform less toxic and hateful to every day users? What does this mean for brands, influencers and the future of Instagram?

We Were Better off in 2008

While it may seem like a root cause, studies have shown bullying is not the only piece of the social media puzzle negatively impacting users’ experiences. For Instagram and Twitter, this is an all-in effort to address growing concerns for the mental health and safety issues plaguing users on these popular platforms. Social validation in the form of likes, has led to behavior in which users experience lower self-esteem when comparing their posts’ performance to those of their peers.

The currency of likes has increasingly become a mental health issue. A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK revealed that Instagram is “the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing,” with the platform contributing to higher levels of anxiety, depression, self-identity and body image. Other studies have found that spending time on Instagram can lead to psychological distress and can promote a “compare and despair” attitude.

Posts can also set unrealistic expectations and create feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Considering that teens and young adults regularly delete Instagram posts that don’t receive enough likes, it’s clear that this metric is contributing to these concerns. Hiding the like count could help reduce the harmful effects of social media and alleviate the pressure of always being on and “on brand.”

All things considered, it makes sense from a public relations perspective for our beloved social media networks to take a stand and combat growing mental health issues, especially among teens, who constantly compare vanity metrics. Now, more than ever, our society has a special focus on mental health awareness, ironically brought about by growing conversations and campaigns largely held on social media. Hiding engagement numbers from followers seems like the obvious next step – a one-switch-flip solution to eliminate the pressure and competitive nature of curating the perfect profile of engaging imagery.

Likes Are Here to Stay

Unlike nearly every other platform change in the social media space, this idea has initially been met with overwhelmingly positive support. However, is hiding metrics really the right move? Think about why users come to social media. What makes them frown every week after analyzing their phone’s screen time report?

The simple, and oft-used explanation is that we want to connect with others and stay up to date with the latest news and trends, but this desire for connection goes deeper than we thought. When we like a post that was also liked by a friend and 40,000 others, we feel similar to those 40,000 people. Now think about all the posts on which you’re the first person to engage. When it’s a friend, you’re happy to be the first name to come across as a notification on their phone. When it’s a celebrity or influencer, you’re even more excited to be the first of hundreds of thousands of engagements to come.

Remember the days before algorithms prioritized “relevant” and notable engagements? Comment sections were littered with people simply declaring, “First!” Part of the thrill of engaging with content is acknowledging your membership or fandom, and seeing how many others belong with you. Things are considered “weird” until enough people announce they like it too. For both brands and users, hiding these metrics takes away that stamp of community – the same community that validates content creators and branded content just as much as it does the fans they serve.

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However, if the update is introduced, we would see a shift towards more authentic content rather than countless images of “doing it for the ‘gram.” Remember when all you needed to enhance an image was your go-to, in-platform filter (#RIPKELVIN) and then call it a day? Now there are thousands of apps to create and edit photos and videos used to curate a persona, often distorting reality, all for the sake of a like from people we don’t even know. If the new feature does roll out, it could incentivize people to post what they want and not what they think will attract the most likes.

Removing likes could cause a push for a more valuable measure of success. This feature falls in line with Facebook’s mission to facilitate meaningful engagement and to strip away the weight of vanity metrics. From a brand perspective, this could mean a more effective method of tracking success and gaining a better understanding of what truly drives audiences.

Of course, there’s also an assumption that without the pressure of posting for the purpose of maintaining a certain level of engagement, users will begin to share even more authentic content. Perhaps lower quality, less exciting photos from your friends or favorite influencer. Is this really what you want to rush to Instagram and see?

As much as we like to pretend they don’t, influencers serve a purpose to a large number of users and are rewarded with the likes and comments those in favor of hiding them have grown to despise. These metrics serve as social proof, to a degree, and the users with the most engagement, often represent the inspirational and aspirational attributes we want for ourselves.

Scroll-stopping, highly curated content is what we, the users, make popular. Even with the most authentic, emotion-inducing photo captions in your toolbox, it’s common knowledge that a pretty picture is almost mandatory to get our content-hungry eyes to slow down and engage. If you want to be noticed and validated in the Instagram feed rat race, you have to work for it.

Hiding metrics ends the competitive drive that breeds the best content. Users are already abandoning influencers that are all fluff and no substance. To rise to the top now, you need to excel at creating content AND connecting with your audience.

Without influencers vying to be the best at their craft with engagement-inducing content or validation of your fellow fandom members, what will keep you on Instagram? Trending toward lower image quality, longer captions and a culture of relatability sounds like all the reasons users are abandoning Facebook. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Instagram thrives on being inspirational. Likes are simply the scapegoat of our internal issues, and have only provided a more measurable reminder of what already existed within us.

We’ve moved from comparing the number of people at our birthday parties to how many double-taps our photos garner. If other people’s likes are responsible for our own struggles with self-esteem and social proof, what does it mean when an egg currently holds the record for most-liked photo on Instagram?

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