Social Currency and Instagram “Likes”

Pressure has been mounting on social platforms to address the myriad side effects commonly associated with social media use, such as comparison and low self esteem. Tristan Harris’s “Time Well Spent” movement has promised to deliver a more intentional and mindful tech experience and other company’s are swiftly following suit.

Harris, former design ethicist for Google, founded the Centre for Humane Technology which calls for tech companies to rethink their features and design to enhance user wellbeing. Harris has implored Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms to take notice of the growing body of research outlining the negative effects of social media on its users. A conscious redesign of these platforms is needed and Harris wants users to be able to engage with social media with more intention.

Mark Zuckerberg echoed these sentiments in a company wide address in 2018. Instagram too, have introduced sweeping changes to tackle the reported issues stemming from the platform, centring user wellbeing through a number of new features.

In a new experiment, users in six countries will no longer see the number of likes on other peoples photos. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand will partake, with Canadian users having been the first to be exposed to the new set up.

Screenshot 2019-07-25 at 18.04.30

Users will still be notified of ‘like’ count on their own phots, but will have no visibility of the total others receive. This move is geared towards tackling “Likes” as a social currency and moving towards a more holistic model of engagement.

So what does this mean for users? Comparison has been widely cited as a prominent side effect of Instagram. By eliminating the rolling tally of likes on other profiles, it may ease comparative tendencies and shift the focus towards comments and conversation. Active social media use has been linked with increased social connection and wellbeing (Verduyn et. al., 2017) and is largely seen as the crux of positive effect on social media. 

This bold move, while well intentioned, may have major ramifications for influencers and business owners who rely on the “like” metric to attract advertisers. Also, it is difficult to predict how this change will impact user behaviour. Will people continue to like in such droves if these actions fall on deaf ears?

For a company that generates income through advertising, removing Like counts, may not benefit them in a monetary sense. However as the app evolves, Stories become more prominent and video content looms large, this may signal a sea change in how we interpret site engagement. Remember, that a picture of a boiled egg was the most liked picture of all time on Instagram. Maybe we will grow to like this lack of likes?!

Verduyn, P., Ybarra, O., Résibois, M., Jonides, J., & Kross, E. (2017). Do social network sites enhance or undermine subjective well‐being? A critical review. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11(1), 274-302.

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