The first photo I ever posted on Instagram was a selfie. The year was 2011, the lipstick was MAC Morange, the filter was Nashville, and the photo border was very much present. The photo has 21 likes, most of which are from former colleagues who recently liked it just to dunk on me during an office happy hour.
Like my makeup and filter choices, Instagram has changed a lot since it launched in 2010. We’ve got Stories and career influencers, and these days, if I — a non-influencer — only got 20 likes on a selfie, I might assume the app was down. As the functionality of Instagram has changed and developed, so has our relationship with it. This explains why the app’s recent proposal to potentially remove “likes” from our feeds has a lot of people talking. The change, which is already being tested in Canada, would mean that users could still see who had liked their photos, but this number would be hidden from the feed and others.
The way many of us use Instagram to connect, entertain, and communicate is complex to say the least. So I asked members of Team MR of varying followings, including our social media manager who runs @manrepeller, to weigh in with their thoughts on an Instagram free from likes. We also want to hear from you in the comments below: How would you feel if like-counts went away? And if you live in Canada: HOW’S IT GOING?
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Social capital is a very real phenomenon and has come to represent a newfangled currency that is directly correlated to a person’s cultural relevance. The number of followers that a person maintains can genuinely change your perception of them — you might respect them more, or take them more seriously, feel further inclined to trust their opinion or exactly the opposite depending on whether you’re an anarchist. Or a purist. (There is an argument to be made that only the most commercially viable care to sustain big followings.)
As far as my own relationship: the number of followers I maintain on any social media platform has a direct impact on my perception of self as a marketable individual (e.g., my bankability), but this is different from my perception of self as a mushy feel-y human being. And as a person in the world with an unflinching urge to overshare, sometimes to the chagrin of many others and an agenda that runs counter to any financial pursuit, I value my following only to the extent that I can offer them (you, I hope!) something warm but intangible in response. A pick-me-up, a hole of bright light in a sometimes-grim digital landscape where so many fucks are given and sometimes you just want to let down your hair and take off your top.
Instagram specifically is a kind of visual record tracking the doings of my personal life and I’m actually pretty sure that I wouldn’t post any more or less often, that I wouldn’t change the quality of my captions, but that I’d check myself way less often. In this way, I’m actually pretty grateful for a following and the responsibility that comes with handling one. I’d probably get more plastic-cup enclosed beverages and use more straws, which I have really been trying to eliminate (come to think of it, I don’t know if the onus to do this would have been as urgent if I wasn’t evaluating my status as a marginal public figure as informed by IG).
The whole debate right now is in the way of eliminating likes, not followers, but I see a direct correlation between the two because likes actualize a following. They represent engagement, buzz, a sort of confirmation that you’re not the holder of a bunch of passive sleeper cells — that people are there with purpose and intention and so on and so forth.
Would you LIKE this decision or not? Sure. I have a strong enough mind and sense of self-awareness to ascertain the difference between being actualized by likes (which totally, I am) and being actualized by being a version of me that I am proud of, but I wouldn’t have been able to know this difference when I was 17 or 18 or even 22. And for those growing up on social media, not as immigrants but as natives, who are right now learning how to talk to themselves and to do it constructively (or not), I worry that the notion of likes as capital and currency only throws a wrench in the pool of improved mental health. So I say: I’d miss the rush of racking them up but go for it, Instagram get RID O’ THOSE LIKES.
Haley, Deputy Editor
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It’s impossible for me to answer this question honestly and not admit the following anecdote: This morning I was looking at an account of someone with a similar following to me and noting, uneasily, that she consistently gets more likes than I do on her photos, often double. But the second I clocked the swirl of inferiority forming in my stomach — the one that wondered, does this mean people hate-follow me? — I put my phone down and thought, stop. It’s surprising how effective this tactic can be. I employ it often.
Caring about Instagram likes is one of those things most people either admit to super openly (to be ironic), purposely denounce (to be ironic), or are actively trying to care less about (very earnestly). I’ve been all three. I do get a boost from likes, but it feels about as pure as getting a boost from, say, feeling fit, pretty, popular, or any of the societally-defined markers of value that are all but ephemeral, and which often have an equal and opposite consequence of making you feel terrible when you don’t have them. Whenever I go through a phase of caring less, I feel better, full-stop. A part of me believes that if we ever hope to have salvation from feeling shitty about that stuff, we have to forfeit the joy it gives us, too. We can find it elsewhere, from places that come at less of a cost to our spirits.
This is why I’m a huge fan of getting rid of likes. Have you ever noticed how much more fun it is to post on Stories? The removal of pressure — from permanence, sure, but also from having to see how many people approve of you numerically — is so freeing. It opens up the opportunity to use IG as it was originally intended: to express yourself and to connect. I would be sad if IG got rid of comments, but in my view, likes can go. (I don’t even want to see them privately!) Likes are trying too hard to quantify something emotional; they encourage us to view ourselves as a commodity, and what’s more depressing? They ultimately tell us very little, and they aren’t worth the boost.
Would you LIKE this decision or not? Trick question! I would refuse to participate in this paradigm in general.
Nora, Partnerships Editor
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Hmmmm this is such an interesting question. I don’t post on my feed so much anymore so personally, likes are of less value to me than follower count. I guess I’ve assigned so much more value to someone responding to a story because it can start a conversation and sort of break the wall between people. Also, I never really cracked the code of posting a photo that wasn’t of myself that garnered as many likes as a photo of my big dumb face, so I guess I’d mourn the end of that particular mystery.
I do use follower count as a way to gauge…something about a stranger I’m following. Mostly that they must be good at what they’re doing. When someone I don’t know follows me I just feel bad for them as I know this relationship will be largely unsatisfactory for them.
HOWEVER as a big old creep, I will miss the ability to see who others are following and what they’ve liked. There’s nothing I like more than screenshotting a strange like a friend of mine has made and then roasting them for it. I would miss that greatly.
Would you LIKE this decision or not? Does it matter? This question is just making me sit with my own powerlessness right now.
Amalie MacGowan, Social Media Manager (a.k.a. the person in control of Man Repeller’s Instagram)
Followers: 2.2M (on behalf of MR)
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Engagement and follower count has been currency on Instagram since shortly after its inception. A world in which brands or individuals cannot monetize or create partnerships from their influence seems equilibrating in a way that feels contrary to the capitalist foundation on which this platform was built. I feel very personally ambivalent in this conversation, as someone who witnesses the positive power of influence on behalf of a brand, and the negative on a personal level.
My real question surrounding this conversation is: Would this change really usher in an updated algorithm (which seems to still loom large as a problem)? Instagram would continue to prioritize and cater feed content to the individual based on what has been highly engaged in their network, or what that user has engaged with consistently before. At the end of the day, eliminating follower count and engagement takes success and influence away from content creators — even those whose ambition and goal is to do objective good with their influence — and delivers it back to the platform. By that, I mean that Instagram will still be able to aggregate data, identify power players on their platform, and create an algorithm that factors in content success based on traditional metrics.
On a personal level (as someone with a following of 2,070, whose interactions on Instagram are very personal), I see the change being largely a positive one in decreasing performance anxiety, bringing the platform back to when we were insouciant about whether our post made it into the double digits. How liberating, as I mentioned in my recent Ansel Elgort story, to post content with abandon? No fear of how agents or brands or business partners or employers will weigh your worth?
From a brand perspective, though, the opportunity to create a viral moment or piece of content that carries weight (and signifies the hard work behind that) feels lost.
Would you LIKE the decision or not? I’m hard-pressed to give an answer for this. I think it would diminish the role of social media strategists, but empower the average user. I’m torn.
Harling, Fashion Director and Brand Strategist
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It would be disingenuous for me to claim I don’t value my follower count. There are so many upsides to it, the biggest one being that interacting with people on Instagram is really, really fun, not to mention affirming. The fact that someone will go out of her day to DM me something nice about something I’ve written, or to recommend a curly hair product, or to tell me they’re dressed like a #stickofbutter truly never ceases to thrill (even if that’s corny to admit).
I don’t think I would care if likes were no longer visible, because they’re already the least interesting part of the platform. They’re also an integral component of the modern hoax that self-worth can or should be quantified by one’s Instagram “presence.” I fully understand how easy it is to buy into that idea, especially because Instagram is something I find very creatively satisfying — a product I’m actively making and choosing to share. On top of that, it’s a product that in many ways reflects who I am and what I care about, so of course the number of people who “like” it (literally and figuratively) can feel personal. But even though it may be fun or validating to get a lot of likes on a photo, it’s significantly more rewarding to get a lot of comments. I always admire people who have the ability to consistently spark conversations underneath their posts versus people who might get more likes. The latter seems less relevant these days, a leftover relic of Instagram’s early days.
Would you LIKE this decision or not? Twice, if I could.
GIF by Madeline Montoya, Image Provided by Haley Nahman.