photograph of cappuccino with heart made with foam
"Heart coffee" by Matt Brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

We live in an era where we are at the mercy of the internet. Social media gives users the power to share their life with the world. And in exchange for sharing their life, users are rewarded with likes. The act of liking something on social media, double tapping a photo or thumbs-upping a status, is a way for users to connect and interact with one another. When someone’s content is liked, it gives them digital agency. Multiple likes, those that allow users to go viral, indicate both digital agency and status. But what about the users who don’t get that many likes? In the social media realm, does their lack of likes devalue the life that they share online? Instagram is addressing this dilemma by considering removing likes from posts and videos. The photo sharing app ran a test in Canada last week and could consider making the change for the entire app. Should Instagram go forward with removing the like system…or leave things as they were?

They say that something shouldn’t be fixed if its not broken. And technically, nothing is wrong with the Instagram app itself. People connect on the app by sharing photos and their lives. They possess the freedom of expressing themselves.  People can travel the world just by logging in to the app. The issue that is being addressed is the digital currency that has been imbued in the like system and its effects on Instagram users. Instagram has been associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and bullying. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because what some people post–be it social media celebrities, other famous people, or even those in someone’s friend group. Users might feel low self-esteem when their friends post their new car that they got for college graduation or record every moment of that international spring break trip. Users who don’t have that new car or can’t go on the trip might feel inferior and feel FOMO (the fear of missing out), especially if their own posts are getting only 10 to 20 likes. But this idea could be the whole reason to why Instagram is considering removing the likes system. Some users seem to be treating Instagram like a competition–seeing who has the most likes; who has more social status. Treating Instagram in such a manner takes away from its core mission–to connect and to allow people to express themselves freely and creatively. If so many people are focused on likes and you remove all of that, all should be right with the world…right?

Removing the liking system from Instagram would affect users in others ways in addition to addressing issues of self-esteem and anxiety. Influencer marketing has had a big impact on Instagram. By 2020, it is on pace to become an $8 billion dollar industry. Per Lexie Carbon, a staff writer for Later.com, Instagram is the best performing platform for influencer partnerships with brands, for there is an average 3.21% engagement rate compared to the 1.5% engagement rate on other social media platforms. In addition, entire businesses are created on Instagram–clothing brands, photography companies, etc. For some influencers and companies on Instagram, the likes–the digital currency–translate into actual money. The success of brands is often based on likes because how many people engage with a brand indicates its status and therefore, it’s quality and success. If there is no liking system, how can brands and companies communicate to potential clients that they can do something for them that their competition cannot? Some people have based their entire paycheck and livelihood in Instagram. Without a like system, how would they make a living?

At the same time, removing a liking system might give an opportunity for smaller brands and smaller influencers to gain more exposure after being overshadowed by the pages with hundreds of thousands of followers. The same applies for users who feel depression because of other posts on Instagram. A non-liking system could give their page more exposure. But the users could also unfollow the pages that make them feel low self-esteem and the liking system could stay in place. So, should Instagram incorporate a system without likes? The pros and cons seem to meet at a stalemate. But the thing about the internet is that it’s always changing the status quo. There are constant updates and improvements. Bug fixes and concept changes. Instagram could test a system without likes and see the responses from users. If positive, the app could keep it and if not, they could change it. Either way, it’s an opportunity to alter how people interact, and at its core, that’s what social media is about.