Instagram's experiment on 'Likes' - Do you like what you don’t see?
- By Marietta D’Almeida London, UK

The author is a 20-year old British of Indian origin reading Medicine at the University of Cambridge and vice-president of Caius Medical Society. She is also, a violinist who has performed at prestigious venues in London and abroad.

Aug 19, 2019

Instagram recently announced its decision to remove the display of the number of ‘likes’ a photo has in an attempt to reduce ‘pressure’ over posted content. First trialled in Canada, the plans have now also been enrolled in various other countries. Whilst the potentially damaging effects of Instagram are undeniable, will this new motive really make for a positive experience? Or is this simply a magnanimous façade hiding a monetary gain?

In the days before social media, you might’ve stuck your photos in an album, occasionally bringing them out and reminiscing with family and friends. Nowadays photos lie dormant in a photo app with the exception of the more aesthetically pleasing (or to use the technical jargon ‘instagrammable) ones which get further photographically enhanced, captioned and then displayed on Instagram to your hundreds or thousands of followers or potentially anyone with internet access who can ‘like’ or comment on your posts. Being an avid user, I’m no stranger to the process and leisurely admire the beauty of other people and places with reciprocal positivity for my own posts. But I am not alone in this virtual world; social media use is flourishing globally, with around 3.2 billion users. Whether you’re using it to show off your dinner or your political views, the whole market owes its success to our attention addiction.

Our love for positive attention derives physiologically from the accompanying release of dopamine (the ‘rewarding’ chemical), also associated with other addictive behaviours, like alcoholism and drug abuse. Instagram cleverly takes advantage of this, conditioning us to value the pleasure derived from virtual ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ more than from the reality such that it is possible to be more satisfied by the number of ‘likes’ your holiday snaps receive than by the holiday itself!

Naturally, like with any addiction, problems arise when the attention received is negative or less than expected. Multiple studies have linked social media platforms to poor mental health due to the general belief that a number of ‘likes’ a post gets is positively correlated with success or popularity. Furthermore, with the most ‘liked’ posts often being professionally shot, heavily edited and generally not representative of the average user’s livelihood, it is not hard to see why failure to achieve this paradigm can be so demoralising, with diminishing self-esteem spurring a surge in cosmetic surgery.

When the first test was run in Canada, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said: “We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a little more time connecting with the people they care about.” That said, a user will still be able to see how many likes their own post has and receive comments thus still remain vulnerable to judgement. In addition, comments and follower metrics will still be readily available. If mental health really was the priority, surely any quantification of popularity would be ceased? If they really cared, they would heed advice from the British Royal Society of mental health which recommends flagging heavily enhanced/edited photos and warnings of heavy usage. But alas, what is Instagram without the possibility of judgement off which it thrives?

Arguably, perhaps the real motive behind the removal of ‘likes’ displayed to others is a shift from product advertisement to the Instagram platform itself as opposed to the so-called ‘Instagram influencers’. ‘Influencers’ are users at the top of the popularity pyramid who are often scouted out by brands to advertise products in their photos in exchange for payment. In such cases, ‘likes’ and follower statistics are a reflection of the public’s engagement with a brand, essentially being the bread and butter of influencers. However, Instagram hardly makes any revenue from User Generated Content (UGC) so the new plans may mean brands are compelled to advertise directly on Instagram to guarantee engagement.

Ultimately, whilst Instagram’s motion is a step in the right direction, it remains a platform for promoting competition and comparison. There are numerous benefits of social media but if we really want to address the problems of social media, it’s going to require more than just removing ‘like’ displays. We need to re-evaluate why we use social media, post to please ourselves rather than others, but most importantly, acknowledge that an Instagram post is really only an edited snapshot of reality.


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