Over the past couple of weeks, my inbox has been inundated with similar questions from both my influencer friends and fashion brands; “Why have I stopped getting likes?” or “How will I know which influencers to work with?”.
No, I don’t work at Instagram, and I can only make educated guesses about the inner workings of the platform. (I think the only person who really knows how the Instagram algorithm actually works, is probably the same genius who knows the original recipe for Coca-Cola.)
However, I am a social media editor and have been for six years. I’ve seen blogs make way for Tumblr, Facebook pages be sidelined for Instagram accounts and influencers go from standing ticket-holders to the main event at fashion shows. But, throughout my time spent working in this field, Instagram has remained the biggest social juggernaut of all, seemingly immune to the passing platform trends. It is its own site, its own discovery engine, and has replaced almost all social media platforms (at least in fashion – TikTok is the frontrunner among Gen-Z) to become the dominant player in the landscape.
Last week, it was announced on Instagram’s official channels that its trial of hiding likes, which already had been tested in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand, is now going to be rolled out globally.
The topic of dinner-table conversation, and the subject of countless memes, has become: “What will the influencers do now?”
It’s no secret that a large Instagram following paired with visible likes has become big business for certain individuals, and as someone with a relatively large following for a journalist, I can tell you that the world of the Instagram influencer is oddly addictive, especially when it comes to the ‘likes’ feature.
I can’t even tell you how many photos I have personally deleted or archived because I felt embarrassed by a low like count. Sad, and a bit embarrassing, but true. As someone who spends most of their working day on social media, my learnings have been that, if content is king, then likes (be it on Instagram, Facebook or any other platform you can think of) are the Ace of Spades. Likes seem to legitimise your posts and validate your work.
For me, my preoccupation with social media has not been overly damaging. Yes, it probably annoys my fiancé when we’re on holiday together and I constantly critique his camera skills (he struggles to get the shoes in shot) and I do occasionally find myself disappointed at a post with low likes. Overall though, it’s a fun hobby rather than something that’s all consuming, but I appreciate that not everyone’s Instagram experience is so positive.
There is no doubt that young people’s mental health is being seriously affected by likes, and Instagram has been widely criticised in studies that have linked poor mental health with the daily usage of the social media platform. In a 2017 study, The Royal Society for Public Health questioned close to 1,500 people aged between 14 and 24 years old in the UK about five of the biggest social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube. Researchers found that Instagram is the platform most likely to have a negative effect on mental health and wellbeing in the young people surveyed. The Instagram likes system is a pressured popularity contest.
The platform seems to have taken this criticism on board in its decision to hide likes, and the company has admitted that it wants to shift the user experience from being about validation to the content itself. “We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” Instagram said in a statement. Some have argued that, as with all major companies, this is a business decision rather than an exercise in altruism from the company, as Instagram will be able to better control the algorithm and not have to honour content from influencers. The platform will be able to prioritise what branded content we see on the platform according to its own agenda.
So, the question remains, how will influencers be able to validate themselves and continue to make money after the likes are gone? Many aren’t happy about it. Aussie influencer Tammy Hembrow, who has more than nine million followers, has said she is thinking of deleting her account due to the proposed changes. Nicki Minaj has also said she will no longer use Instagram in a post made on Twitter.
A few of the influencers that I’ve spoken to have said they believe comments will be the new way to measure engagement on posts, and if a brand wants to work with an influencer in the future the amount of comments (which helps prove how engaged an audience is) will be the new KPI. Also, it’s worth noting that you can still see a person’s total follower count, and that will remain unchanged – for now at least. There is also debate that this move could helpfully weed out those influencers who buy their likes (a common occurrence), but as followers are just as easily bought, I fear this won’t help much in that regard.
I do worry about people turning away from the platform if the likes go away. Almost like a mobile game, the addictive quest for likes gives users an incentive to come back for more. I worry about this from a professional point of view; I have spent a great deal of time building up Instagram accounts for businesses and fear about the work I have done becoming redundant. Besides that, I am concerned for some of my friends. It’s easy to critique influencers, but many of the people I know who use the platform are entrepreneurs, mavericks and businesswomen who have successfully used a free marketing tool to become their own boss, and there is nothing uncool about that.
My advice to brands and influencers worried about losing likes? If you don’t want to enjoy your new freedom then maybe it’s time to give people something to talk about and start racking up those comments.