Prove your humanity

It’s 6pm on a Monday night—prime time to post a picture and brag about what you did on your weekend. The subtle and meticulously-edited photo of you laughing with a smoothie in your hand may just be the perfect way to say “guess who had a great weekend?” It took you 25 tries to get the perfect ‘candid’ photo of you laughing whilst trying to not look like you just snorted half the smoothie. You take a deep breath and post your photo. You wait. It’s been one minute, there are no likes. You furiously message your group chats to like your recent post. You sigh in relief as your picture begins to accumulate likes.

It’s been several weeks since Instagram rolled out their trial of hiding likes from public view in Australia. Users of the app are now only able to see the amount of likes on their own photos but not the amount of likes on their followers’ photos. However, in a world where so much of the affirmation we receive is based on online platforms and not face-to-face, has this new framework changed the dynamic of Instagram for better or for worse?

The way we communicate on Instagram has become an intricate process. It’s not just about sharing pictures of different brunch foods—how we connect with those around us in person and how we connect with others on Instagram differ greatly. But buried deep in the way we use Instagram, is the search for approval from virtual individuals. The removal of likes on Instagram begs the question, have we depended on likes as means of authentication and affirmation? Is there a certain craving for the verification of others through social media?

In a sense there is. Instagram, like other social media outlets, has turned into a space for us to seek approval. The liking part of Instagram has, in some cases, evolved into a system of dependency. Whether conscious or unconscious, there is a small part of many of us that relies on the likes we get on a photograph as means of self-esteem and measure of popularity.

As investigated by the BBC, the instant feedback of likes on content may boost one person’s self-esteem, but if someone doesn’t get what they consider to be ‘enough’ likes, it could bring their self-esteem levels down. In extension, it could also bring up feelings of inadequacy and anxiety for some. And unfortunately these feelings are the consensus for many young people who use the app. The British Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) conducted a survey where participants were asked how different social media platforms made an impact on their well-being. They were asked to score the platforms on different health and well-being issues. Snapchat and Instagram were given the lowest scores.

The executive for the RSPH noted that it was “interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst…both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people”. In another survey of 1000 individuals, 41 per cent admitted that social media platforms make them feel anxious, sad or depressed.

It isn’t just typical users of social media that share in these emotions, many celebrities have found themselves taking a break from the app whether it be for a short or prolonged of time. Back in 2017, Selena Gomez noted that she makes an effort to “delete the app [Instagram] from my phone at least once a week” due to the negative comments and the feelings of dread they bring her. And, similarly, although Pete Davidson only temporarily deleted his account this year, he found that he just didn’t “wanna be on Instagram anymore” and that “the internet is an evil place and it doesn’t make me feel good.”

I’m sure many people will agree that social media platforms like Instagram are large contributors towards a range of different feelings. We feel some of our highest highs and our lowest lows on social media. And maybe that’s why we’re so addicted to it. But when Instagram removed our ability to see how many likes others have, it may have taken a weight off our shoulders. There is now less pressure to accumulate a substantial amount of likes on a photo. Is it possible that we can now relax and enjoy posting photos of our dogs in peace? Unfortunately not.

By hiding likes from our view, Instagram has also removed a cultural currency that was pivotal to how users experienced the app. (Crash course in cultural currency: It’s what elevates a product above its parameters of cost and quality. If the toy in a Happy Meal is McDonald’s cultural currency, then likes are Instagram’s cultural currency.) Instagram has spent nearly ten years building a platform where users depend on being able to like each other’s photos. I’d go as far to say that our satisfaction in Instagram really lies in the authentication of likes as opposed to the actual experience of the app itself.

And those in particular who might have felt this loss more than others are social media influencers. They rely on how many likes they get on their pictures for a livelihood, so, what can they do now? Someone who definitely feels this loss, is Perth-based influencer Jem Wolfie who has accumulated 2.7 million followers. According to her, she’s “here to run a business” and by hiding likes “they’re taking a tool away that’s really important for us”. And unfortunately she could be right. Now that Instagram have hidden likes, it might take a little while before users find some other way of engaging with content they love and for brands to pick up on these ways of engagement. During which…influencers might have to (God forbid) work a 9 to 5 job.

There isn’t really a clear-cut answer. If Instagram do want to get rid of likes permanently, then we might feel less pressure to seek validation during our app experience. However, have they also taken away a pivotal part of that same experience? Will using Instagram ever be the same? Should we just get on with life and realise that this won’t be a big deal in the grand scheme of things? Probably.