What’s Life Without Likes?

Likes never should have mattered to begin with

Over the past year, Instagram has tested out removing the “like” count on their users’ posts, only allowing the user who posted each image to see the total likes it received. The update first rolled out to Canada, and then to six more countries: Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand. Now their posts show users only a few mutual friends’ names “and others” rather than a total like count, which functions like a  scorecard. As the company announced in a tweet, “We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.”

Back in 2012, the LA Times paid $103 to generate over 60,000 views on a YouTube video of paint drying, just to illustrate how easy it is to buy views, clicks, or likes. Engagement online can be manipulated. For example, you can create a fake Russian person with real followers with a few clicks. If you’re desperate for some fake love, you can also buy likes and followers on sites like Coincrack and EmazingSM — but you really shouldn’t. Whether sites show views, likes, shares, or retweets, the idea to include them on social media in the first place was a mistake.

Despite the ethical issues and possible psychological benefits from removing likes on social media, the first thought that many had upon hearing this news was that “this will make it harder to be an influencer.” Even if brands are paying influencers to post content, they should care more about what that content is than how many likes it got. Simplicity in marketing and advertising strategy means that totals are calculated and assembled into graphs showing month over month growth in whatever metrics they’re tracking. It seems logical to them, but not everything can or should be broken down into numbers. Because of brand sponsors and advertising-based revenue streams, it must be though.

Dying for the perfect Instagram shot

Of course, any life is worth infinitely more than just one photo, but it is not uncommon to find stories of people dying for likes. It is easy to forget the context of how recently these self-glorifying technologies came into our lives, and how in 2008 there was not even an App Store at all. Instagram didn’t exist until 2011. Just as flaws were inherent since the creation of some of these platforms, such as their revenue models, the prominence of “like” and “follower” counts have caused nothing but trouble.

It is not uncommon to see users delete photos that don’t get enough likes shortly after they are uploaded to keep their presence curated with their best performing pieces of content. Journalist Sarah Wexler explained it this way in her article quoting Larry Rosen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University at Dominguez Hills and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold On Us. “Since we spend more time online, where we don’t get positive reinforcements from facial gestures, hugs, and other nonverbal cues, we try to get it from likes.” 

When we see social media likes, oxytocin is released into our bloodstream. Also known as the “cuddle hormone” this chemical neurotransmitter makes us feel good when we physically bond with one another. As April Rudin, a contributor for the Huffington Post, put it, “we know that being connected to people and having many friends has long been associated with increased lifespan and the ability to ward off illness. There is an inborn human desire to communicate with others. Isn’t that the most viral definition of social networking?”

A 2017 study found that of all major social platforms, Instagram had the most detrimental effect on young people’s mental health. The study explored the many negative impacts social media, which is potentially “more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol” has on youth.

Who gives a like?

It’s getting more and more acceptable to critique the social emptiness inherent in social media. This past summer, the liqueur company Kahlua and the creative agency Droga5 teamed up with actor Jackie Cruz to create an art exhibition in New York called “Zero Likes Given.” The exhibition even included the first photo ever posted to Instagram that received zero likes. In another project, artist Sam Hains created an AI that makes eerie renderings based on unliked images titled “Zero Likes.” 

In a post with over 80,000 likes on Instagram alone, Vayner Media CEO and social media influencer Gary Vaynerchuck said that he thinks “people have become too one-dimensional in knowing what their audience is looking for.” He thinks the shift away from like counts is a net positive for people’s happiness. There is a herd mentality that comes along with liking something because everyone else liked it, or posting something because that is what you think will get the most likes. Doesn’t it seem like you would post something more authentic to you if you weren’t concerned about how your content will be perceived by your peers based on its public metrics? Perhaps you would only post things that you want to see instead of things you think others want to see.

This move is a fundamental shift by two of the biggest platforms in social networking that popularized the importance of like count in the first place. Having fewer social media scoreboards in front of you dozens of times a day will be healthier for your self worth and sanity, although unplugging entirely could be even better for you.