Likes, favorites, shares, and retweets form the rubric which hundreds of millions of people voluntarily submit to for judgement every day. Whatever they are called, these various indicators of approval on photos, comments, or other content occupy a substantial piece of social media viewers’ consciousness, and have been the base business model to launch the careers of social media “influencers” who trade their internet popularity for corporate cash. Perhaps because of their ubiquity, the system goes unquestioned. One posts their content, they garner whichever indicator(s) their platform of choice provides, and they are then judged based on the content’s qualitative performance as shown by likes, favorites, shares, retweets, etc. However, this may not be the case for long.
Instagram, owned by media giant Facebook who popularized the use of indicator systems, is progressively expanding tests in various countries with its “likes” indicator system. The experimental version of the app, active in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand, is nearly identical in form and function to the standard app. The only difference being that the content creator can see the amount of likes she gets on a post, the public cannot. Although this is a complete departure for a Facebook company, belief that this may garner support from various users is not unfounded. Social media platform VSCO, for instance, appeals to many due to the absence of likes, comments, or follower counts. Whether or not support for this will scale from VSCO’s relatively small 30 million active monthly users, to Instagram’s billion active monthly users worldwide, however, is still up in the air.
According to a CNET article, the response to these tests have been mixed. On one hand, public health experts claim that the change could benefit mental health by simultaneously removing the social pressure to like others posts, or compete with others to garner the most likes. Small businesses, “influencers”, and other groups who disseminate content and advertising through social media, however, have voiced their concern. Without a public indicator system to show others who likes their product/content and how many people like it, many fear that engagement with advertisements and online traffic to social media pages and websites will decrease significantly. These complaints do have merit. It is widely acknowledged that the more positive or negative indicators a piece of content gains, the more likely social media users are to pile on to the trend, further propelling the content. For advertisers this provides an incredibly valuable opportunity to quickly churn out viral content to millions of users in a relatively short period of time.
Despite the risk to business, I believe that Instagram should broaden the scope of their experiment. Media companies, like all companies, have an obligation to protect their consumers from risks inherent to the use of their products. Over 24% of teenagers in a Pew Research Center study reported that social media had a negative impact on their lives while 45% were neutral but did not believe it had an overall positive effect. Any benefit to either influencers or the companies behind the products they promote do not justify the sometimes debilitating social pressures that indicators on various social media sites inflict on millions of people. Additionally, these changes directly benefit media companies by keeping users active on their platforms via increasing user satisfaction.
As it becomes increasingly clear how little these social media giants seem to care about the users that keep them afloat, as shown by the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, it is high time for large players such as Instagram to pursue policies that protect, rather than expolit, their users.