As part of a unique experiment to see if it can improve the user experience and encourage more engagement and activity, Instagram is hiding the number of “likes” that are shown next to every photo or video posted on the popular social media platform. An experiment that started in Canada is now being rolled out to six more countries (Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand) and rumors are starting to build that “like hiding” could be coming to the United States in the near future. As a result, it’s only fair to ask: Will hiding “likes” really make the Internet a better place?
Inside the world of Instagram “likes”
The big problem, of course, is that the number of “likes” appearing next to any photo or video has become a metric of success for social media users. A photo, for example, is successful if it gets thousands of likes, but a complete failure if it only attracts a handful of likes. One the surface, this might seem to make a lot of sense. What could be more democratic than asking people to vote on whether or not content is good? In theory, this should encourage people to post the best possible content.
But here’s the thing: people have taken the concept of “likes” too seriously, and that has led to a lot of very negative behaviors across Instagram. One practice that particularly stands out here is the ease and availability of buying “likes” from third party companies. If you can’t get enough organic activity on your Instagram photos, then why not just pay a few bucks and buy up hundreds or thousands of likes and followers?
The habit of using “likes” to judge the relative success (or failure) of Instagram content can also lead to a lot of online bullying. Imagine a bunch of teenagers posting photos to Instagram and waiting for approval from the “cool kids,” only to find out that the queen bees or top jocks at the school have chosen to freeze them out by withholding “likes.” For young adults craving social status and social approval, that could be a huge hit to their self-esteem.
In fact, even among older users, many people simply delete any photo that does not get an arbitrary number of likes, all to create the overall impression that everything they post online is truly spectacular. (Oh, that photo of me post-workout still makes me look fat? Better delete it, and post an even better photo tomorrow!) Someone scrolling through their Instagram feed would only see a highly curated feed of photos with lots of likes.
A possible solution to the “like” problem
Instagram really isn’t re-inventing the wheel here when it comes to hiding likes. Instead of posting a real-time counter of how many likes a photo or video gets, it will simply state, “Liked by username and others,” where ‘username’ is the first person who liked the photo. The idea here is that users will not obsess over how many likes their photos are getting – as long as a photo gets two “likes,” it’s going to be just as impressive as a photo from an A-list celebrity that gets 10,000 “likes.”
At least, that’s the thinking over at Instagram HQ. But is really possible to re-engineer human social behavior so easily? For thousands of years, humans have been competing socially, looking for ways to raise themselves up and keep others down. If it’s not the “like” button, there’s bound to be some other social media feature that can provide a go-to metric for success. That’s not being cynical, that’s just recognizing what makes us human.