Instagram appears to be in the process of rolling out a surprising change to its platform: hiding the number of times that a post has been liked. While the internet giant claims that it’s making the change in to help us focus on the thing we love, the truth is different. If it really wants to improve things, it should go one step further and hide follower counts too. You can be sure, however, that it never will.
In a statement released last week, Mia Garlick, director of policy for Facebook Australia and New Zealand announced that the intention is to “remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love.” Suddenly, the platform wants users to "spend a bit more time connecting with the people that they care about,” according to Instagram's boss, Adam Mosseri. This would be an admirable move from Instagram, if it were true.
Before we credit Instagram for demonstrating concern for users’ wellbeing, it’s prudent to ask what the platform has to gain from this move. As noted by Nic White in the Daily Mail, hiding likes will shift power away from influencers and steer brands back towards paid adverts. Without that precious like count under an image, there’s no immediate means of gauging a post’s success, robbing influencers of their metric of worth. Over the last couple of years, opportunistic influencers have tapped into the fact that audiences relate better to people than they relate to brands. These savvy personalities have effectively operated a platform within a platform, robbing Instagram of valuable revenue. Instagram has finally decided that it has had enough of Kylie Jenner charging $1 million for a single post and has resolved to take back some control — not to mention some of that revenue.
Ultimately, if brands can't measure reach, and if influencers can't justify what they offer, companies will be nudged towards conventional adverts which are no longer undermined by low numbers of likes that make their products and services look lame to the average scroller. In short, influencers are made to seem less appealing, while adverts no longer appear quite so pathetic.
If Instagram were genuinely concerned with our enjoyment of the platform, it would go one step further and ditch follower counts too. Last year it made the figures less prominent when viewing someone’s profile, but the popularity contest that keeps us tied to the app like dogs on a leash would be solved if the tally were to disappear completely.
Instagram will never do this, however, as our need to post and scroll is dependent on our need to validate ourselves through notifications and an insatiable thirst for recognition, factors that are critical to the platform's popularity.
Instagram lost its charm a long time ago, going from a funky little start-up busy competing with the likes of Hipstamatic, to a soulless, corporate subsidiary that may try to paint itself as a cuddly entity that genuinely cares for your mental health, but truly only cares about its bottom line. The indie scrapper that started as a photo-sharing app (though some will remember that it was once called "Burbn" and wanted to be Foursquare) has evolved into something that it was never intended to be. In its early days, it seemed more accessible and appealing than Tumblr, a platform that by comparison felt too anarchic with its obscure memes and bewildering gifs. Instagram felt stable and fun. However, while trying to make cool filters in order to turn mediocre iPhone snaps into “art” thanks to some faded blacks, light leaks, and a heavy vignette, the designers inadvertently created the world’s largest popularity contest in which even those who look like they are winning are actually losers.
As music photographer Anna Lee tweeted a few days ago, “brands are doing to Instagram what parents did to Facebook.” Having squeezed out the last remaining Instagram founder, Facebook has ensured that Instagram is no longer Instagram: it’s become Instagram from Facebook. Instagram was never particularly edgy but it did have its appeal, and it is now successfully shedding everything that made it feel even vaguely authentic. The steady corporatization may eventually threaten its status, potentially triggering a leakage of users to The Next Big Thing, perhaps to a platform that isn’t dominated by hyper-mainstream brands constantly hawking their wares through shamelessly vacuous wannabes.
Alternatively, by disempowering the influencers, the platform will start to feel a little more like a photo-sharing app rather than one infinitely scrolling commercial. Perhaps this is an incredibly shrewd move to ensure that Instagram doesn't become so over-saturated by commercial content that users finally despair and go in search of something that's not sold its soul to Mammon. We're yet to reach peak-influencer, but surely we must be close.
Instagram is now the most corporate of corporate corporations and what else should we expect from a behemoth that exists solely to create profit? The issue here is that Instagram isn’t selling rubber gloves in a pleasing array of colors, or running a delightfully cozy deli that blends its own hummus. Instagram is far more pervasive than that.
It shapes how we communicate, what we think about, and how we think it, and thereby shapes who we are. Through its size, reach, and role, it has a vast responsibility for how society functions. This isn’t just about the countless fashion influencers who regularly have meltdowns, posting blubbing confessions that social media is destroying their lives and that they have to take a break, only to return two weeks later as if nothing has happened. This is about the very essence of our social fabric and right now Instagram and Facebook simply do not care because they do not have to — not to mention that caring would be a threat to their margins.
Is Facebook too powerful? Does Instagram have too large a role in shaping how we live?