What’s Not to ‘Like’: Corporate Good or Corporate Greed
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
"Instagram’s removal of likes is that it is not about mental health at all. It is about moving from a more decentralised model of advertisement..."
I, like many, was surprised the first time I checked Instagram after the 'likes' were removed. What was more surprising however, was the supposed reasons behind the change: Instagram cares for the mental health of its users and is testing ways to transform the space into one which creates less anxiety.
From the 18th of July this year, Australian Instagram users (along with users in New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, and Italy) have not been able to see the number of likes on posts.
According to Mia Garlick, the Director of Public Policy for Facebook and Instagram in Australia, this move away from likes aimed to depressurise user experience within the application, allowing users to share content without the element of competitiveness that inevitably surrounds likes.
‘We want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves. We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love.’
Instagram’s rhetoric on this move has been incredibly consistent; all public statements seem to echo the above sentiment. Instagram should not be a ‘competition’. The focus of the app should be on its content, not the quest for approval. Etc.
On one hand, there is no doubt that social media is a source, or at least a facilitating factor, in the anxiety many of us experience on a day-to-day basis. Numerous studies have indicated a link between more time spent on social media and poor mental health. In fact, our brains experience a release of dopamine in response to receiving likes online, influencing our behavioural cycles as we seek to replicate that release. From a social-interaction point of view, SBS reporter Samuel Leighton-Dore has commented that ‘the emphasis placed on how many likes each photo receives plays heavily into the complex and ongoing battle for validation in the digital media age’. Likes become proxies for social approval, both signally and validating your status on the social ladder.
We can feel this locally. People post much more regularly to their Stories than to their Feed— a facet of the platform which, significantly, hides likes. Given the success of Stories as a less visibly competitive forum, it makes sense to introduce these same features to the Feed.
But for some reason, it’s difficult to accept that Instagram cares enough about user mental health to motivate such a significant change to its platform. In a context where its parent company, Facebook, has little issue in facilitating the disruption of the democratic process, why the sudden righteousness? Sure, maybe it’s good optics, but for a huge, multinational corporation such as Instagram, a move like this is never as straightforward as it appears.
Firstly, while others cannot view your like count, you still can. Personally, I still get validation from that number, even if the knowledge that nobody else can see it causes me a little less anxiety.
Secondly, the focus on how social media in general affects users’ mental health does not, and has never, centred on likes. It has centred on how we are affected by seeing only the highlights in the lives of peers and influencers. What is particularly damaging is the constant exposure to digitally altered bodies; whether this be through ‘correction’ apps like BodyTune, which allows you to pull in your waistline, or the face filtering apps embedded by the platform itself. While a restriction on body photoshopping may never be workable, I think a genuine concern about the mental health of its users would see Instagram consider disallowing the digital alteration of our faces in filters designed with the exclusive purpose of slimming our faces and hiding our flaws.
Importantly, what is Instagram itself doing to support this ‘test’? How is the mental health of its users being measured?
Online, Facebook have said that they’ve conducted tests in which a handful of people have suggested they think removing likes will improve their mental health. This is not enough to reliably support the idea that Instagram has removed likes for the good of their users. When the results of the first test in Canada had still not been released, or even finalised, how did Instagram justified rolling out the change in Australia? As of last month, Instagram still had not released any results.
If we look at this move from a corporate-strategy point of view, Instagram’s removal of likes is that it is not about mental health at all. It is about moving from a more decentralised model of advertisement, where Instagram models and influencers can make bank on endorsing skinny tea, vitamins and make-up brands, to a centralised model where it is the platform itself that controls, and thus profits, from advertisement. Reports coming out just after the removal of likes show the volume of ads on the platform has roughly doubled, with some marketers suggesting almost 20% of posts are now ads.8] It is yet another way by which we, as consumers, become less empowered to make our own choices about what we see (noting that we didn’t hold that much autonomy to begin with). You can unfollow an influencer, but you cannot opt-out of the rampant data collection that Instagram, Facebook and other services are either conducting or directly profiting from.
Instagram no longer needs data from your likes to market you content. Your feed is already customised to your digital footprint. How much time you’ve spent looking at a particular user’s content, what ads you’ve clicked on, what kind of posts you like, and your political affiliations are all obtainable data that Instagram monetizes for advertising.
While the removal of likes may be beneficial for mental health in some ways, it is unlikely to be driving force behind the change. At best, it is a token gesture; a perfunctory acknowledgment of the impact of social media on our self-esteem. At worst, it is a centralisation of advertising processes that allows Instagram to cash in under the guise of protecting mental health.
As John Herrman of the New York Times best sums up, backlash against the removal of likes reflects:
‘a rational understanding of what… any social network is, really: a marketplace with goods and currency and winners and losers, governed by an all-powerful and unaccountable corporation. Metrics mean money, and knowing them provides a rare if fleeting sense of knowledge and control in an environment otherwise ruled by secrets — one that will exploit you whether or not you actively try to exploit it. For users, numbers are power. For the platforms, so is hiding them.’
Mia Garlick, quoted in Jessica Lynch, ‘Instagram Is Getting Rid Of Likes On Posts For Australian Users From Today’, 10daily(18 July 2019) <https://10daily.com.au/lifestyle/life/a190717srkpx/instagram-is-getting-rid-of-likes-on-posts-for-australian-users-from-today-20190717>.
Elroy Boers et. al., ‘Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence’ JAMA Paediatrics (2019); Melissa G. Hunt et. al., ‘No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression’, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology(2018).
Lauren E. Sherman et. al., ‘The Power of the Like in Adolescence: Effects of Peer Influence on Neural and Behavioural Responses to Social Media’,Psychology Science (2016).
Samuel Leighton-Dore, ‘Why Instagram removing ‘likes’ is a win for everyone’, SBS(18 July 2019) <https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2019/07/18/why-instagram-removing-likes-win-everyone>.
Pavica Sheldon, ‘Pressure To Be Perfect: Influences on College Students’ Body Esteem’, Southern Communication Journal (2010).
Queenie Wong, ‘Instagram is hiding likes. You may be happier in the end’ cnet (14 August 2019) <https://www.cnet.com/news/instagram-is-hiding-likes-you-may-be-happier-in-the-end/>.
Paige Leskin, ‘Influencers are fighting for attention as Instagram tests removing likes from its platform: ‘there’s no audience applause at the end of a performance’’, Business Insider (6 September 2019) <https://www.businessinsider.com.au/instagram-influencers-removing-likes-impact-2019-9?r=US&IR=T>.
Amy Gesenhues, ‘Has Instagram increased its ad load? Marketers report as many as 1 in 4 posts are ads’, Marketing Land (26 July 2019) <https://marketingland.com/has-instagram-increased-its-ad-load-marketers-report-as-many-as-1-in-4-posts-are-ads-264109>; Karissa Bell, ‘There really are more ads on Istagram now’, Mashable (23 August 2019) <https://mashable.com/article/instagram-double-ads/>.
John Herrman, ‘What if Instagram Got Rid of Likes?’, The New York Times(31 May 2019) <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/31/style/are-likes-and-followers-the-problem-with-social-media.html>.