With Instagram gradually rolling out the removal of the number of likes an image gets being visible, a lot of reactions have surfaced: confusion, animosity, and for some — like me — excitement.
I resisted Instagram in the early days of the platform. I didn't feel it had a place for me or my work, but eventually, I had to concede. It was not only a burgeoning social media; it was a powerful tool for business and advertising your own work as an artist. So, I joined, and for a year or two, I took it very seriously. My following was growing healthily, my likes per image were increasing, and I was at around a 10% interaction rate, which agencies were very keen on at the time. Then, a shift in algorithms pulled the rug from under me.
I went from a 10% interaction rate to around 1-2% with no discernible cause; I hadn't changed the way I worked, what I was posting (if anything, it was improving in quality and appeal of subject), I was using the same hashtags, and posting at the same times. I was far from alone. In fact, most of the people I was in regular contact with on the platform took a massive hit. I worked on getting better numbers for a few months, before eventually assigning that time elsewhere. There was a positive from all this, however.
I began to see the platform's flaws. Perhaps when I was enjoying the tool and the gratification of sustained, measurable growth, I saw the whole of Instagram through rose-tinted glasses. Having then been stung by the behind-the-scenes change to the algorithm, I was not as quick to jump to its defense. The first casualty I saw has been observed in many articles, even a few here on Fstoppers: the seeming death of creativity.
Now, that is obviously hyperbole, but not without basis. Certain types of images just did well with regards to interactions, that is, likes and comments. As a result, more people recreated these types of images. This looks like the death of creativity, but really, it's just the Occam's razor route to "success." We all want to post our work — whether it's an image, a song, a poem, an article — and see it blow up with likes, comments, and shares. It feels like a reward for what you did. So, why mess with a working formula? Where once originality was praised, Instagram made it so recreating popular visuals stood in its place.
The pendulum didn't just swing that way either. Not only were you rewarded for taking pictures people demonstrably respond well to, but going out of your way to create something new was more work, more difficult, and had far more risk. We've all proudly published an image and witnessed it fall stillborn from the press. Whether it's because the algorithm didn't put it in front of the right eyes or the work is simply not worthy of praise, it hurts one's pride all the same.
So Why Is the Removal of the Number of Likes a Good Thing?
It's liberating for so many reasons. Firstly, you can post whatever you want without the fear of it performing horrendously for everyone to see. I'm sure there are people out there who did that anyway without a care in the world, and good for you, but the majority don't. I could argue that for me, it would be resoundingly negative to have an image fail when it is work for a brand, or that agencies might see my latest image is doing terribly and wonder why. But as much as it is that, it's also ego — make no mistake.
Secondly, it's, for all intents and purposes, the removal of pigeonholing. Instagrammers who have built a following as a traveling landscape photographer but yearn to post a few portraits have been freed from their shackles. There is now an opportunity to move away from the ritualistic content creation for your specific audience and move to creating whatever content you want to create. I expect some will scoff at anyone who was living within the boundaries of how their audience reacted to types of content, but again, the majority of people who take Instagram seriously as a tool had to. I haven't taken the platform seriously for a year or two now, and yet, I still get work and inquiries through it, so deviating from what works could potentially be damaging for businesses with accounts on it.
Thirdly, while it doesn't remove the competitive element of Instagram, it does strip it back. This echoes the point of risk, with many Instagrammers competing with thousands upon thousands of other people in their niche, a limiter is put on creativity. Instead of trying new things with the hope of creating something unique and memorable with a higher risk of failure, people are more likely to play it safe and harvest those likes and follows with content that is proven to work.
Problems Still Exist
This change, while brilliant, isn't a holistic solution to the platform's problems. The order of the feed not being chronological is still a huge bugbear for many of us. The rise of sponsored content and ads is getting increasingly more intrusive with every day that goes by. But, most relevantly to this article, the removal of likes might not fully undo how people treat their accounts. Many will still want their profiles to look synergized and themed, they will still want a lot of comments (which could replace the "like" metric), and they will still know themselves whether a post does well.
I don't claim for a second that removing the number of likes from posts returns the platform to its glory days, but it's at least a big step in the right direction.
The change has upset a lot of people, but I'm absolutely convinced it's a positive one for its users, photography, and Instagram as a whole. It has certainly piqued my interest in rekindling a relationship with that old flame and seeing if it boosts my enjoyment, though that may well be a separate issue.
A few months ago, our writer, Andy Day wrote an article on why Instagram should hide follower counts, but why they never will. Well, who knows, Andy may have to eat his words someday soon.