Former Bachelor contestant Tiffany Scanlon had a whinge, of sorts, on social media this week after noticing a sudden drop in the number of ‘likes’ on her Instagram snaps.
But imagine posting a photograph on Instagram and getting zero likes?
The overwhelming majority of the world’s population probably wouldn’t care and have more important matters on their minds. But for the younger generations – where their online world is a validation of existence – it’s a far different story.
This radio silence could become the norm, as Instagram trials hiding likes for users in Canada.
In early May, the social media platform rolled out a trial to hide the number of likes and views on photos and videos. While users will be able to monitor likes and views on their own posts, this won’t be visible to other viewers.
But what does this say about validation in digital culture? And where does this leave Instagram influencers who make a living on the platform?
Dr Emily van der Nagel, a lecturer in social media at Monash University, says the tech giant is trying to shift the focus of posts.
“The change is a way to communicate that focusing on likes shouldn’t be the main point of using Instagram,” she says.
“This is likely a response to a common perception that social media likes have the potential to foster unhealthy comparison and competition.”
However, the move may not necessarily improve mental health for users.
“The impact of social media on mental health isn’t straightforward,” Dr van der Nagel adds.
“If social media is contributing to someone feeling unworthy or lonely, this usually has more to do with their relationships to other people on that platform than it does with their relationship to that specific platform.
“But, of course, when these platforms are visited multiple times each day or are simply always on in the background, there’s the potential that people might develop strong attachments to the connections they make and images they post there.”
“Hiding likes suddenly won’t immediately change their perceived value; people will surely find other ways to assess how popular their posts have been.”
While Facebook introduced nuanced reactions for posts, including ‘sad’, ‘angry’, ‘wow’, ‘haha’, and ‘love’, in 2016, Instagram users can only comment on or like posts.
“Likes are an established way to approve of others’ posts, or to indicate someone is listening to them,” Dr van der Nagel says.
“The number of likes a post has received gives some context in terms of that person’s audience, but likes don’t reflect quality in a straightforward way.”
Impact on influencers
Instagram influencers and everyday users could be impacted by reduced visibility of likes.
“Someone posting to only their intimate circle wouldn’t expect to garner hundreds of likes for a post,” Dr van der Nagel says. “But someone building their brand might have followed thousands of people, drawn on popular Instagram aesthetics, and included several hashtags to circulate their post even further.
“Like the way the verification system on Twitter led to a new category of Twitter accounts, we might soon see designated influencer accounts on Instagram that have slightly different platform rules and infrastructures.”
However, Instagram users may find new ways of quantifying approval.
“Hiding likes suddenly won’t immediately change their perceived value; people will surely find other ways to assess how popular their posts have been,” Dr van der Nagel says.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon saw people taking screenshots of their platform back-ends that show the likes they received, or commenting about them, to demonstrate they’ve produced a popular post.”