What Even Is Instagram Without the Likes?

Instagram’s latest like-hiding experiment has me reassessing my social media obsession

Illustration: Lance Ulanoff

I’m addicted to likes. The daily approbations from friends, family, and strangers that dot my social media like so much pepper in my fettuccini nourish me in conscious and subconscious ways. When my numbers are high, I smile to myself, content that I’ve connected with the world in some meaningful way. When the likes are low or nonexistent, I grow anxious and wonder where my audience has gone.

This relationship is probably unhealthy, but I’m not sure I’d want it any other way.

Across all of my social media — Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook — I have what might be regarded as an uneven following, and, in general, my engagement expectations align with those follower counts. I expect much more from my Twitter account (94K followers) than I do TikTok, where I have barely 350 followers. But like a parent who claims to love all their children equally, I react to 25 likes on Instagram as I do to 200 on Twitter. My emotional investment is the same, regardless of platform.

When Instagram ran a brief experiment in 2019 of hiding all like counts, I had a viscerally negative reaction. The inability to measure response is anathema to everything I’ve ever learned about media. The only reason to create media—yes, even social media—is to attract an audience and, if you’re lucky, generate a response. I hate flying blind, even with social media.

After discovering that there were others like me—people who want to measure what’s popular on social media—Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, is retrenching with a new test, one that puts like control in the hands of users. The small global test (of which I am not a part) will let some users hide like counts on their posts and even from other users’ posts as well.

The latter feature appears to be a way of removing some of the social media jealousy many of us suffer. I’m talking about that gutted feeling you get when, after seeing your own abysmal like counts, you happen on the account of a friend or influencer and see thousands of likes on every post. I know that I think, “How can I compete with this?”

Much has been written about the deleterious impact of social media on our mental health, and I’m not here to argue with that or even with Facebook’s decision to run this test. I do think, however, that it’s still worth talking about the ongoing tension between our need to measure everything and the sometimes negative effects of measurement.

I believe strongly in measurement. Metrics and telemetry are the foundation of science. Without them, we’re left to rely on inevitably faulty assumptions. Metrics are also the foundation of online media. Page views and site traffic are how media companies measure their audience and success, as well as attract and report to advertisers.

However, as Jerry Z. Muller, emeritus professor of history at the Catholic University of America, wrote in his 2018 book, The Tyranny of Metrics, metrics are not intrinsically tyrannical, but they are “frequently used in ways that are dysfunctional and oppressive.” While Muller’s book isn’t ostensibly about online metrics, it does paint a picture of how lockstep adherence to measurement can lead us astray. He describes “metric fixation,” which itself can have cultlike elements:

Studies that demonstrate its lack of effectiveness are either ignored, or met with the assertion that what is needed is more data and better measurement. Metric fixation, which aspires to imitate science, too often resembles faith.

We have a sort of blind faith in the numbers we see in our own social media, despite the fact that online traffic and engagement, for instance, is highly susceptible to system gaming. Back in 2014, I participated in an entertaining Instagram experiment crafted by Rameet Chawla, founder of the digital agency Fueled. Using a since-closed Instagram programming loophole, Chawla designed an algorithm that automatically liked photos on my behalf. This often made me the first like on photos I’d never seen. It also increased my own engagement, because my name often appeared among the first few on a like list, even for highly popular posts. It essentially turned my Instagram account into a bot—and, yes, I soon turned it off.

Even when numbers aren’t gamed, they aren’t always a true measure of future performance. For media companies, huge traffic numbers coming from sites like Facebook and even Google search results can lead them to engineer content and even site design to favor these platforms. But as soon as these traffic-source platforms change, the pipeline is often cut off, leaving sites scrambling for new metrics-boosting traffic sources.

Social media algorithms that use traffic, comments, and likes to measure engagement are prime targets for bad actors. We know that Russia and others have used social media bot farms to generate fake outrage and pump up fraudulent groups. When a social media user sees thousands of members and millions of likes, they may assume that these groups are managed by real people with valid concerns about hot-button issues, even when they’re not.

What’s clear is that, especially online, metrics can lead you astray. The photo of you and your puppy that got five likes is no less valuable than the one of you getting your Covid-19 vaccine shot that got 110 likes. Yes, one photo’s engagement is higher, but you aren’t getting vaccinated again simply to generate more likes. (Are you?)

I try to imagine a social media world where my Instagrams and tweets don’t have likes, I can’t see my follower counts dropping every day, and I stop wondering why my latest TikTok has just 150 views. But then I wonder why I’d engage on any of these platforms without visible metrics. Scrubbed of those tallies, what purpose do any of these platforms serve? Likes, views, and followers are the fuel of these platforms. Strip away these numbers and they’re like race cars without gas or birds without wings.

Social media platforms without their ever-present measurement systems could feel as uncomfortable and oxygen-starved as Mars: distant, alien, and unsatisfying.

Alternatively, Instagram and other platforms without these metrics and people like me, wondering where our audience went and thinking about creating something new that reconnects with our followers, could be like stepping out of a bomb shelter, rubbing our eyes, and sucking in a big breath of fresh air.

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Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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