Can social media platforms reverse the psychological effect of the desire to collect 'likes'?

The option to remove the function could change the impact of popular sites

Instagram. Maddi Bazzocco
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Those of us who idle away time by browsing and posting on the photo-sharing service Instagram may have encountered a pop-up message in recent days.

"You can now hide 'like' counts on people's posts so that it's easier to stay focused on what they share," it reads. "You can also hide like counts on your own posts." The obvious question: why would we want to do such a thing?

After all, the like, the heart and the thumbs up are the backbone of social media. They’re a barometer of what’s popular and a convenient way of showing or receiving appreciation. But the act of liking a post on social media has all kinds of repercussions – emotional, economic and psychological – that are only beginning to be understood.

There's a lot of research showing that people like to receive likes and are motivated to seek them

For more than two years, Instagram and Facebook have been running experiments to determine whether it might be better to hide likes from the platform altogether. The recent change at Instagram would indicate that it might be a good idea – at least for some of us.

The like, in its various forms, has bound us tightly to platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and even LinkedIn.

“The key objective of these media is to engage people,” says Elaine Wallace, senior lecturer in marketing at the National University of Ireland Galway.

“There’s a lot of research showing that people like to receive likes and are motivated to seek them. People engage in all sorts of practices to get them, and it keeps them coming back.”

But the negative psychological effect of that desire to collect likes has been freely admitted for many years by both Facebook and Instagram. In 2016, Instagram's then chief executive, Kevin Systrom, told The Wall Street Journal: "We need to have a place where you feel free to post whatever you want without the nagging fear of, did someone like that or not?"

According to mental health campaigners, the like feature has resulted in a negative impact on self-esteem, especially among young people. Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

The like feature, on whichever social media platform, became a competition for appreciation, popularity, attention and, in the case of influencers, advertising revenue. That competition, perhaps inevitably, began to spark anxiety and depression.

Technology journalist Karissa Bell noted in 2018 that the like was creating an unhealthy addiction to being noticed, and called for it to be banished.

“It helps fake news propagate, discourages meaningful conversations, encourages shallowness, and exacerbates the most psychologically damaging effects of social media,” she wrote.

Mental health campaigners noted the negative impact on self-esteem, particularly on young people desperate to seek validation at times of loneliness.

Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram since 2018, has stated in interviews that "depressurising" the platform was his priority. He told The New York Times: "We should have started to more proactively think about how Instagram and Facebook could be abused and mitigate those risks. We're playing catch-up."

Mosseri launched an internal project code-named Daisy (“She loves me, she loves me not”) to investigate “like culture”, from which this new option to hide the number of likes has emerged.

You might assume that it's fewer likes and less attention that's getting us down, but Wallace has discovered that the polar opposite is also true. In a recent paper, Hiding Instagram Likes: Effects on Negative Affect and Loneliness, she offers evidence that unexpected popularity can be even more toxic, particularly if the extent of that popularity is visible to others.

“People getting an awful lot of likes doesn’t do them any good, either,” she says. “There’s clearly something wrong if people are focused on getting something that isn’t necessarily helping their well-being.”

She suggests that becoming suddenly popular can result in a different form of pressure, one of needing to maintain the kudos that's been bestowed. In other words, we seek out an audience, but aren't mentally prepared for it when it shows up. Wallace is concerned that most people haven't realised this, and still pursue likes without realising that it might have a negative effect.

Can people focus a little bit more on their friends and a little bit less on how many likes they're getting? I still like that notion

“There’s a big body of research looking at this at the minute,” she says. “The understanding of why people want likes versus what it’s doing to them is going to be an ongoing question, but with the technology being as dynamic as it is, we really need the answers now.”

Of course, there are large numbers of people for whom the like option appears to present no problems – indeed they rely on it to promote themselves and their careers. Loud pushback from influencers and celebrities such as Nicki Minaj may have prompted Instagram to make the hiding of likes optional rather than compulsory.

"Some people are psyched about it," said Mosseri, "some people are annoyed about it … but it seemed to be very polarising."

It has had one curious effect, however: the hiding of likes, according to Facebook testing, seems to encourage us to post more things online. We become less concerned about the popularity of what we post, refrain from self-censoring and express ourselves more freely. This feels better from a mental health perspective, and, perhaps ironically, gives the platforms exactly what they want: more time spent using their services.

For his part, Mosseri is still focused on making Instagram as non-toxic as he can for the largest number of people. "Can people focus a little bit more on their friends and a little bit less on how many likes they're getting? I still like that notion," he says.

But even small changes to social media platforms can have a disproportionate effect on the way we think and behave; almost as if we’re guinea pigs in an ongoing social experiment.