Opinion: Instagram tests hiding likes, a small piece of a bigger problem

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In my first class of the semester last week, my professor asked the class to talk about the social media platforms we engage with, and how they make us feel. Many people — including myself — said that when they are anxious or bored, they turn to social media platforms like Instagram where they can passively scroll for any amount of time and then put their phones down. Overwhelmingly, my peers also mentioned that social media made them feel anxious, especially around sensitive topics, or that they could not help comparing themselves to the people in the photos. 

Instagram serves as a platform for popularity building, partially through aesthetical judgment and partially through dedication. No matter how much we possess of either, it is designed to leave us wanting more.

On an Instagram post, it is no accident that the number of likes is displayed above a photo’s caption. Before we even know what a person has to say about their own post, we see how many people like it. It is the structure that Facebook’s younger sibling created to prioritize imagery and aesthetic over typed messages. The result is a series of curated glimpses into people’s lives: some explicitly designed, and others designed to show authenticity and “realness,” but curated to do so nonetheless. 

That simple fact — neither good nor bad — is why Instagram is testing the practice of hiding the number of likes a post receives while still allowing the person posting to see their amount of likes. It is also the reason that such a change is a small alteration that will have a nominal effect, and leave users interacting with the same platform with the same goals.

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have all expressed interest in hiding likes on social media, and Instagram has been testing it in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand since July 2019. In November, Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, announced that Instagram will test hiding likes in the United States.

According to Mosseri, the practice is particularly aimed at young people who are growing up with this technology, which research shows heavily impacts development and mental health, including one study published in the ScienceDirect journal that shows a strong association between social media usage and poor sleep and cognitive function. 

“The idea is to try and depressurize Instagram, make it less of a competition, give people more space to focus on connecting with the people that they love, things that inspire them,” Mosseri said in an interview with Wired. 

When asked about the implications for the business, Mosseri said: 

“We will make decisions that hurt the business if they’re good for people’s well-being and health because it has to be good for the business over the long run.”

The first part of that sentence is surprising. How often do we hear a CEO of a major corporation detail plans to hurt their business for the sake of people’s health? Hardly ever. But of course, it is clear that Mosseri believes it will be good for business over time. 

Instagram has always been inherently performative, and always will be. Even authenticity and “realness” are fabricated, curated and epitomized from inside our reality. Instagram’s structure is designed to demonstrate life — if not at its happiest, then at least at its most remarkable, whether to ourselves or our followers. Hiding likes might decrease pressure for some folks, but the unsettling feeling of insecurity that can come from Instagram is not going to go away. That, as always, is up to us.

For people who use Instagram to learn from people living far away, friends trying to stay in contact by sending each other memes or a freelance photographer trying to build clientele, the amount of likes other accounts receive does not really matter. The only time it matters is in comparison, a temporary way to satisfy the desire for validation, recognition and popularity that we have all experience. Likes only display proficiency in the language of Instagram. 

For likes to stop mattering, we do not need to remove them. We just have to stop expecting them to tell us something deeper about ourselves.

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