The Wall Street Journal
TOYING WITH emotions is nothing new for social-media giants: In 2015 Facebook FB -0.48% let users react with “laughter” and “anger” emojis to posts, rather than relying solely on its iconic Thumbs-Up. That same year, Twitter swapped the star that marked “Favorites” for a sentimental heart.
Now, via a series of tests starting in Canada and expanding to six more countries, including influencer-laden lands like Japan and Australia, Instagram is mulling the idea of removing like-counts from public view altogether.
It appears to be for a good cause. A March 2019 study published by the American Psychological Association showed increases in depression and anxiety and dips in self-esteem for those born after 1995 that can be linked, in part, to social-media platforms. According to the survey, these issues were markedly aggravated starting in 2011, a year after the photo-friendly Instagram launched.
“Comparing your successes, lifestyle and physical appearance happens easily on this app because of the visual photo sharing,” said Liz Beecroft, a New York psychotherapist who also creates content for Instagram intended to inspire her more than 12,000 followers. “Adding likes to the mix can increase the urge to compare,” she added, leaving people feeling unsupported or uncreative when they don’t see a certain number of likes roll in for a post.
An Instagram spokesperson said that, in its tests, the goal of removing likes is to help “followers focus on the photos and videos [they] share, not how many likes they get.” The company believes that by allowing only users to see their own likes, the pressure to perform will ultimately abate. Then users can more freely “tell their story” rather than trying to compete among others with lifestyle highlight reels shot from flattering angles and anxiously watching their likes publicly tick up (or not).
Instagram’s supposedly compassionate plan will “allow users to be blind to these superficial metrics,” said Ms. Beecroft. A more callous view, from Ronn Torossian, a crisis communications expert, suggests that the strategy is meant to weaken the influencer market that has gotten a “free ride” by profitably exploiting Instagram as a marketing tool.
When reached for comment, Instagram said that in these exploratory stages it was still “thinking through ways for creators to communicate value to their partners.”
Myriad factors influence how many eyes Instagram’s algorithm exposes your image to, including your post’s timeliness and the likelihood other users will be interested in the content based on previous habits. Most savvy Instagrammers’ strategies would remain relevant in a post-likes world. So it’s possible removing those hearts would simply restore the app’s original raison d’être: sharing over-filtered shots of life’s most mundane moments.
A ‘LIKE’ HAS value beyond its function as a digital ego stroke. Yes, people use social media to explore the lives of others-from friends and family to role models and total strangers-but it’s often in pursuit of better lives themselves. Users can find tasty recipes, become more intelligently obsessive about hobbies, note trends or plan increasingly ambitious trips. Each like helps Instagram and its community determine the quality of a post, with often the most photogenic cream rising to the top.
Instagram relies on its community to steer the platform, so it probably couldn’t wholly remove likes without steering users away. “It’s fun to see what other people have liked and a nice way to discover new things,” said Amrit Sidhu, the co-founder of One Stop Away, a creative agency that focuses on women’s advocacy and inclusivity.
Yet even removing likes from public view, while still allowing users to double tap every image they adore, may not appreciably improve mental health the way the app allegedly intends. Users would still be able to scroll past aspirational photos that make them feel self-conscious, the algorithm would still cough up shots of an ex cuddling someone new, they’ll still face cyberbullying and they’ll likely spend just as much time on the app as they do now-all of which, studies show, play a large role in how Instagram affects its users’ mental health. And, of course, Instagrammers will still be able to see their own likes even if everyone else can’t, so they could easily still be discouraged when a post fails to connect with their followers.
“I don’t think this initiative is a genuine move toward bettering mental health-that argument is like slapping a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” lamented Ms. Sidhu, who boasts more than 40,000 followers on the social platform. “We need to focus on the lack of access to mental health support and resources in this country and address the root of why we all are so affected by likes and numbers rather than simply removing them.”
Instead, Ms Sidhu argued removing likes might most affect those who use the app for business, especially the influencers with whom so many of us have a love/hate relationship and the brands that hire them. Instagram said there’s no truth to the claim that removing likes is meant to push brands to pay for sponsored posts. But without public likes, brands will struggle to gauge how well they can align their products with a targeted demo and eventually, brands might have to pony up and pay Instagram for official ads.
Instagram could probably help users who struggle with social media’s effects on mental health in many ways-like only allowing dog content. But removing the heart of the platform isn’t worthy of a like.
By Rae Witte
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