It looks like they’re finally doing it. Instagram is about to push the delete button on ‘likes’. Instagram CEO, Adam Mosseri, has announced that the platform would begin testing the change in the US this week. It follows Brazil, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan and Italy, where Instagram has experimented with not displaying the number of likes to other users.
"Right now we're testing making like counts private, so you'll be able to see how many people liked a given photo of yours or a video of yours, but no one else will," said Mosseri. “It's about young people," Mosseri said. "The idea is to try to 'depressurise' Instagram, make it less of a competition and give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, things that inspire them."
While Instagram is citing users’ mental health and wellbeing as a reason for the change, cynically, could it be a way of Instagram disguising and masking falling engagement and growth across the entire app.?
We passed peak Instagram a while ago, and, with some users engaging in behaviour described as ‘clout chasing’, pursuing likes with the intent to become famous, and ‘sadfishing’, the act of someone making exaggerated claims about their emotional problems to generate sympathy and more attention and likes, it has become, to many, a dysfunctional arena for attention seekers.
Kayli Kunkel, Marketing Director for HYPR, an influencer platform since 2013, says “I don’t believe Instagram is suffering from a decline in engagement or that the motive behind hiding the likes is to make that less visible. If you believe Instagram, their motives are the well being of the users. If you are a bit more cynical you may argue that likes have been used as a driver to monetise Instagram without giving the platform a cut. Influencer marketing as an industry has become extremely reliant on likes as a metric. So its possible they are trying to reduce accessibility to this information for commercial reasons.”
“Regardless, it’s my belief that likes are a terrible metric to measure anything. No two likes are the same. You make like something because you intend to buy it or you may just be a person who likes a lot of photos. No information about the identity or intention of the likers is available, so marketers, influencers and audiences can’t really learn much from them except for a general “level of engagement” metric that helps our ego or makes us feel like we did some due diligence.” says Kunkel.
Rebecca Holloway, Social Media Strategist (@beccasocial), “I would like to think that the removal of like counts will mean fewer bots, however, it wouldn't surprise me if these became more prevalent in inflating follower counts. Along with the number of comments on a post, this will become one of the only ways brands will be able to see how engaged an audience is with influencers they may be considering working with.”
“Despite these changes making life trickier for brands and influencers navigating sponsorship deals, I do think it will have a positive impact on casual users of the platform. I expect that at first many will find it quite strange, but will adapt quickly, and soon forget that like counts are missing. I would hope that this has a positive impact on users' mental health and that they aren't posting for likes, but instead posting content they have really enjoyed creating.” she says.
By June 2018, Instagram had reached the 1 billion monthly user mark. In the US, influencer fraud, including purchasing fake followers, likes and creating fake personas, is estimated to cost businesses $1.3 billion a year, according to research from cybersecurity firm Cheq. US companies spend an estimated $8.5 billion annually on influencers according to influencer marketing firm Mediakix. On a good day, roughly 15% of the corporate dollars spent are lost to fraud it is estimated.
William Soulier, CEO and co-founder of Talent Village, who conduct influencer campaigns for brands, says, “Digital metrics have allowed brands to measure the performance of all promoted content on Instagram and ultimately judge the success of their social campaign. Therefore by Instagram removing a vanity metric such as "likes" on in-feed posts, both users and brands should hopefully become focused on less tangible metrics, but arguably more important factors such as the quality of the content produced.
“The problem is that it's very difficult to measure something like "quality", and therefore it seems inevitable that brands will shift their focus to the next quantifiable metric such as engagement. By hiding likes on the user’s feed, Instagram is giving a chance for content to stand out for its quality and not for its engagement.” he says.
Araminta Sheridan, founder of Araminta Marketing says, “This is a great decision from Instagram. Instagram used to be an anti-media, an authentic experience. Whilst so many incredible things happen through Instagram every day (mental health movements, communities are formed, body positive beauty), it has become so curated. I look forward to people using the platform more openly, less concerned about what other people think. I think this will result in a reduction in toxic behaviour and an increase in genuinely good content. I also think people will start to socialise through the platform again. Less passive ‘double tap’ behaviour, more conversation.” she says.
“Instagram is like a game for some people, people will always find ways to ‘beat the algorithm’ so that they can compete alongside people and companies who can afford to advertise. Changes may solve some problems and cause others to arise. Like most businesses, it's a game of whack-a-mole.” says Sheridan.
Some people are saying upstart Tik Tok is more authentic? “Maybe, it is newer which make authenticity easier.” says Sheridan. “The ‘better’ an app gets, the ‘better' people get at it. How will they avoid their own authenticity problems? Watch this space I suppose!”
Nikki Hesford of www.hesfordmedia.co.uk, a digital agency specialising in FB and IG, says, “Tik Tok is growing massively but it still isn’t that mainstream and most brands haven’t worked out yet how to leverage it into sales. If it does stay the course, the early adopters of the platform who are using it now will see the greatest benefit, as with all platforms, it’s easier to make an impact when you’re there at the start. I think many brands are ambivalent about whether to put the effort into Tik Tok or if it will fizzle out – but like most videos on the internet, a lot of planning, and staging from media agencies has gone into making it look authentic and ‘off the cuff’!” she says.
While, for many, it is hard to believe that Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, is doing anything altruistic, it still wants to keep its cash-cow healthy with a thriving population active both physically and mentally.
Hannah Elderfield, Associate Insights Director at Canvas8, says, “Hiding likes is something that has come about primarily to help protect the mental health of everyday users. But the assumption has been that ‘hiding’ likes may negatively impact brands and ‘influences’, for whom such ‘engagement’ has been an important metric - that’s not necessarily the case though.
“When ‘performance metrics’ are displayed publicly, it sometimes dictate what type of content gets posted or shared - especially on certain platforms. And that’s contributed to a rise in ‘cookie cutter’ posts - influencers know what ‘works’ for their audience and often repeat what’s performed well in the past, but many feel that that’s led to a lack of creativity in this space. Removing likes may well free up brands and influences to try new and interesting things, freed from the shackles of public endorsement.” she says.
“There’s another element here in that ‘virtue signalling’ (or a lack by which to do so if likes are ‘hidden’) could give a more accurate view of what people are enjoying. For example, people will no longer be able to like things to be seen to like them. They’ll only be able to signal directly and that’s a very different dynamic which could result in more authentic and honest interactions online.” says Elderfield.
Hesford says, “My view is that actually, it’ll make very little difference. For a long time “likes” have become meaningless both in terms of performance algorithm, and public perception - the only people who will be affected by this are those seeking validation from “like counting” (usually young, impressionable and quite vulnerable girls and boys) so this can only be a good thing.
“You may have noticed a lot of brands post stories 5-6-7-8 times a day, yet publish a “post” only once every few weeks, due to the nature of how obsolete they are becoming.” she says.
“Facebook - who own Instagram - is similar to Apple in that they’re at the cutting edge of innovation – they aren’t reactionary. They don’t ask people what they want, they just do it. People always complain at the introduction of every dynamic new change, but ultimately people accept it and it makes the platform a better place. For Instagram to keep growing, it needs to clean up it’s image of ‘fakery’ before consumers become too sceptical of the authenticity of the content they are exposed to and start to become fatigued. Click farms and bots can ‘like’ images very easily, but it requires a more sophisticated set up to automate fake commenting, so the intention here is to reduce fake interaction, which of course will make it stronger.”
“Whether FB/IG genuinely cares about its users’ mental health, or whether it’s a PR strategy with commercial aims – only they know! But in any event, it is clear to most regular users of IG that the platform causes feelings of inadequacy. While they may not cause mental health problems, there is no doubt they trigger existing sufferers of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harming, when vulnerable people are bombarded daily with messages that say ‘everyone else is achieving more than you, are slimmer than you, more beautiful than you, have more money than you’ etc.” says Hesford.
“Influencers probably hope that their followers will express their thoughts and approval with more meaningful interactions such as commenting, in the absence of tapping a like button. If that were to be the case, it would create a more authentic metric on which to measure the influencers who have a real following versus those who paid for theirs. Those who have built a genuine following will be pleased about this change. It could see smaller influencers with maybe 20-30k followers emerging as having more commercial opportunity than others with 100k+ because it will become obvious to brands, which ones actually have an engaged audience.
“As a marketer for brands wishing to spend money with influencers, it can be incredibly difficult knowing whether the influencer you plan to pay even has any real people watching their content.” says Hesford.
There are many people and businesses invested in the success of Instagram influencer marketing. It’s big business. They’re, obviously, going to put a positive spin on any changes and are going to still cite the importance and influence of individuals paid to post.
Instagram is due a refresh because it has become quite boring and samey. Deleting visible likes could be a positive move to remove what has become a digital shackle for some users. But, could all the attention just turn to the numbers of followers? Deleting all metrics could be the answer if they really care about people's mental health. Removing likes could take some of the steam out of people’s mental and emotional desire for validation and attention. Digital platforms need users to come often and stay longer and injecting newness is all part of the process. What this does to the influencer market is yet to be seen and do they even care? Is it time to say goodbye to the flat-white?!
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