The Power of the 'Like'

CONTENT WARNING: Body Image

Early in July, Instagram implemented a change to its platform in several countries across the globe, including Australia. This update saw the number of likes on any given post disappear from user’s profiles, with numbers only being seen by the user themselves. For everyone else, there is no numerical value attached to likes. While a list of all those who liked the post is still available for all users, the only way of finding out the number of likes would be to physically scroll through and count every user listed.

While removing a number may seem like a minor change to those not familiar with ‘the gram’, this change has led to a widespread discussion about the power of the like and the potential ramifications this move may have on the broader functions of Instagram.

In less than 10 years of Instagram’s existence, it has transformed itself into a verifiable marketplace for selling oneself. ‘Influencers’, as they are called, have built careers out of monetising their followings. Whether it’s brand collaborations or sponsored posts, Instagram has become a legitimate career path, especially for women. And this is a career path based on selling yourself. Your body, your children, your home; every aspect of your life is fair game. This use of Instagram has undoubtedly had a trickle-down effect on your average Instagram user. While they may not have the same massive following or likes as the influencers, they can feel all the same pressures within their own use of Instagram. 

This is where Instagram becomes potentially problematic. While women have always endured pressure over their bodies and appearances, Instagram allowed these pressures to be numericised. With the rise of these platforms, people of all genders are being held to an increasingly specific image of beauty. And many people feel the need to expose themselves in order to achieve this aesthetic. While this analysis is certainly not scientific, before likes were removed, my curiosity was sparked by something I posted on my own Instagram that led me to investigate a trend. If you look at any women’s feed, the overwhelming trend appears to be that the less clothing worn, the more likes a post receives. My amateur investigation found that swimwear shots were always very successful by the ‘like’ metric. While there is certainly nothing wrong with loving your body and sharing it on Instagram, it becomes concerning when women are posting this kind of content not only in the shallow pursuit of likes but also self-worth. It is certainly a grim future when women receive sustenance for their self-esteem through the rolling in of likes, often from strangers who are trolling their public accounts.

The real question at hand is, will anything change now that we can’t see how many likes posts receive? While we can’t be sure that this will have a positive impact on the psyche surrounding our use of Instagram, I can safely say if there is an impact, it will be a positive one. It’s hard to know whether the obsession over likes comes from the likes themselves, or the knowledge that other people see the likes you receive on any given post. If it’s the latter, we can expect that this will bring a great deal of positivity to Instagram, where people no longer feel tied to maintaining a certain aesthetic to appease the ‘like gods’.

While it is tempting to give Instagram, and by extension, their owners Facebook, a pat on the back for their social responsibility in identifying and addressing the damage a like can do, it is also very possible that this move is entirely selfish. It has been suggested that Instagram is attempting to reharness its marketing potential to ensure that it receives a cut of influencer profits, and that the removal of likes may just be an attempt to further control that sphere.

Regardless of motivations, it does seem like this is a step in the right direction in making Instagram a healthier platform for all users, and just for that, I welcome the change with open arms.