The Truth About Instagram Likes

I remember the first time I got a hundred likes on one of my Instagram posts. It was New Year’s Day 2015 and I was a freshman in high school. The picture was a poorly lit shot of five of my friends and me standing inches apart, girls on one side, boys on the other. If you look closely you can see my younger brother mid-jump, trying desperately to be included. On the far left, you can see my dog struggling to get out of the clutches of one of my friends. We’re blocking the TV, which has just finished counting down the seconds until the ball drops in New York City. I think my mom took the picture.

A lot of my memories are like this. Growing up in the digital age, my experiences are intertwined with my online presence. I vividly remember the feeling of getting that one hundredth like, though I wish I could save that mental space for something else. I’ve navigated the murky waters of Instagram and Twitter since I’ve known how to socialize, and it’s become ingrained in my daily process. Though Baby Boomers might be convinced my mental health has suffered because of the constant downpour of information at my fingertips, it’s the water I swim in.

Instagram CEO, Adam Mosseri, has a different take. Earlier this year, Instagram announced that they would officially be removing the like count on posts in the US sometime this week. According to the company, this decision is all about mental health. With young people so desperately dependent on Instagram likes for validation, the app took it into their own hands to remove that pressure. About this controversial action, Mosseri says,

“We will make decisions that hurt the business if it helps people’s well-being and health.”

Instagram’s Twitter went on to say, “we want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get."

Before you give Mosseri or the company a pat on the back for their hard work in protecting our mental health, Instagram has another major motive for taking away likes on their platform.

Since the app’s development, Instagram influencers have changed the way companies market products. In the earliest days of social media, companies reached out directly to Instagram, paying them to place ads in the midst of our feeds. Now, companies cut out the middleman and reach out to accounts with high numbers of followers and likes. The influencer advertises the product to their fan base and the company gives them a cut of the profit.

When most people think of Influencers, they think of huge celebrities like Kylie Jenner, but there are plenty of smaller accounts that still make a living (or at least an earning) on the platform. Accounts with as little as a few thousand likes per post can merit the influencer title, earning sponsorships from companies to promote a product. Whatever feelings you have concerning Rise and Shine singer Kylie Jenner, she doesn’t fully represent the influencer economy. Instagram is home to independent photographers, writers, and artists who otherwise wouldn’t have the means to share their craft with the world.

These influencers—especially the smaller ones—present a problem for Instagram. Since companies connect directly with influencers, Instagram isn’t seeing the profit for advertisements that once provided a consistent flow of cash. By removing likes, Instagram has made it essentially impossible for new influencers to break into the industry.

Smaller influencers (generally less than 10,000 followers) can’t compete in terms of exposure, so they use engagement to determine success. Engagement measures statistics like the number of likes and comments on a post, as well as the percent of followers who like a certain post. Without the like count displayed as a public feature, companies would have to trust smaller accounts to send screenshots of their like count. This information, which can be easily doctored, is essentially useless to companies.

This leaves potential sponsors with two options: turn to big influencers exclusively or go crawling back to Instagram and advertising directly on the platform. For smaller companies (often how independent artists previously broke into the influencer industry) big influencers are a stretch, leaving Instagram as their sole option. The social network has managed to package up their attempt to monopolize advertising and sell it back to us as protecting our mental health.

If you need more proof that Instagram isn’t looking out for you, think about the app as a whole. In 2012, Instagram was bought by Facebook for one billion dollars. In the twenty years that Facebook has taken the world by storm, it has also interfered with our national election, regularly mistreated black employees, and incited violence globally. For a parent company that cares so much about our mental health, they turn a blind eye to a lot of things.

As a proud member of Gen Z, I am also resentful of the constant pandering of apps like Instagram telling me what is good or bad for my mental health. Growing up in the midst of the 2008 housing market collapse and on the brink of the climate change crisis, I have bigger and more pressing worries than who is liking my photo. Sure, I keep track of my likes and follows. Yes, I check the app more than I should. But I’m also smart enough to pick up on the fact that Instagram can remove likes when it benefits them, but they won’t remove hate speech toward marginalized groups of people.

OK, Boomer.