Oceans of digital ink have been spilled about the corrosive effect of social media on the psychology of its users. We are giving up too much of our privacy, they say. Constant status competitions are seeping beyond our public lives and into our personal space, they say. The embarrassment of having fewer likes than one’s peers is driving teens into depression, they say.
Yet when a prominent social network takes a step to mitigate these dangers, the response from many of the same media outlets is to complain about that, too. Instagram recently decided to hide the number of likes and views on all posts in seven countries, as a test of new platform modifications. The aim is to make the site feel less competitive and more like a healthy community, so that users with low follower counts can nevertheless share equal footing with more popular accounts when their posts are displayed.
The experiment may or may not yield the desired results, and it is unclear whether the platform will expand the modified interface to other locations. But even before the results are in, a Google search for stories on the new policy reveals a fairly negative slant:
As it happens, there are good reasons to suspect that Instagram is making the right move here. The shift could lead to real improvements to the mental health of its users and the quality of content on the site. Even the influencers who use Instagram to communicate with their clients’ audiences may benefit, despite early complaints about the new policy.
To understand why, let’s dive a little deeper into what is actually changing and how the incentives are expected to shift under the new system.
What’s happening right now?
Back in May, Instagram began testing a significant change for users in Canada. Under the experimental new system, Canadians would no longer be able to see likes and video views attached to other people’s posts.
That decision came in the wake of earlier studies that showed Instagram having a particularly detrimental effect on the psychological health of its users, due to the stress of competing for likes with one’s peers.
Instagram has decided to expand its test to other countries as well. The company made an announcement a few weeks ago to this effect, giving reason to suspect that it may eventually make such changes permanent:
Its parent company, Facebook, explained the decision. “We want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” said Mia Garlick, Director of Policy for Facebook in Australia and New Zealand. “We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love.”
Other recent moves by Instagram include the introduction of a new AI algorithm that warns users against posting abusive content. The software scans each post before it goes online, and if it is deemed to be harmful, it asks the user if they are really sure they want to hit the publish button.
Whether or not these modifications are a glimpse of Instagram’s future remains to be seen. In principle, however, we believe they represent a necessary step forward for the platform – delivering benefits even for most of the people who are currently objecting to the changes.
Goodbye popularity contests, hello quality
Artistic merit is a hard quality to pin down. People have different tastes, but each of us still wants to feel like we are on the same wavelength as others in our social group. The easy compromise that many of us make is to simply follow the crowd: Popularity becomes a stand-in for perceived quality.
Yet popularity is easy to manipulate. Paid likes and fake followers can artificially boost some profiles on social media. The same holds for any type of commodity; clever marketing and media backing can paint a picture of high demand for a particular product – which in turn leads to an increase in actual demand. Once popular, the very popularity of the thing creates a positive feedback loop, further increasing its profile and visibility, even without a corresponding increase in quality.
Such phenomena work in reverse as well. An amazing new product with very little backing may have difficulty getting off the ground, simply because “nobody else is using it”. Before long, two key trends emerge: The gap widens between successes and failures, and popularity becomes almost entirely untethered to quality.
Avoiding this herd mentality is important for the health of any society. The education system has the responsibility of preparing each generation to rise above base human nature, and evaluate people, events and ideas on their own merits. Likewise, the public health system should prepare society to better deal with the psychological rollercoaster that is inextricably tied to the quest for social status and popularity. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a heavy-handed social media authority to protect us from ourselves – just as we wouldn’t need cigarette taxes, bike helmet laws, or increased security at airports. In the real world, we do.
Hiding likes and views would force each post to stand on its own merits, rewarding quality rather than perceived popularity. Such a shift in incentives for content creators could help stabilize a system that has gone off track, re-calibrating the target in a way that corrects for our natural biases toward social hierarchies. Incidentally, the principal winners in such a system would be ordinary users, as a renewed emphasis on quality content would improve the overall Instagram experience.
Incidentally, similar observations have become commonplace in other fields. Much of the frustration surrounding media discussion of politics, at least in parts of the West, has come from the empty ‘horse race’-themed coverage that focuses primarily on which candidate is winning in the polls at any particular moment. This type of coverage typically stresses polls and ratings at the expense of a nuanced exploration of the actual policy positions of the candidates. As substance disappears from political discussion, popularity contests take their place. We’ve seen how that turns out.
Myths and facts about modern influence
Much of the early backlash against Instagram’s new direction has come from paid influencers. Their argument is simple and straightforward, and goes like this:
Influencers can make products and services ‘cool’ for consumers, so they have great promotional value for the brands that sponsor them. Yet their desirability for brands rests on their popularity. When popularity is hidden, it becomes harder for potential influencers to convince brands that a partnership would be lucrative. They could potentially send screenshots of their own like counts to potential brand partners – but even if the two parties come to an agreement, the value of their partnership becomes less obvious to the brand under the new system, because it is harder for them to track the performance of each influencer post in real time.
The argument above makes perfect sense as far as it goes, but there is much evidence to suggest that it puts its weight on all the wrong variables. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at each element of the influencer system, and how it interacts with metrics such as likes and video views. When we do so, we discover that the naysayers’ concerns are generally without substance. Consider the following practical observations from within the industry:
- Likes don’t matter all that much. Likes don’t equal conversions, which is why like-counts are virtually ignored by many in the industry. Instagram’s recent move is actually supported by TRIBE, an international business that connects influencers with brands. Jules Lund, founder of TRIBE, puts the controversy in perspective: “Likes is one of the most insignificant of all metrics,” he says. Other marketing insiders agree. Ryan Detert, CEO of the influencer company Influential, said that clients “have almost completely abandoned the idea of engagement rates being the most important piece … it’s become a nice-to-have.”
- Other metrics, including direct conversion counts, are far more consequential. Post engagement rates, impressions, and reach can paint a fairly thorough picture of how many people are paying attention to content posted by any given user. Two years ago, Instagram also began offering a ‘paid partnership’ tag to be put on posts, which sends analytics data directly to the tagged sponsor. In March of this year, Instagram launched the beta version of its Checkout feature, which lets users make purchases while remaining inside the Instagram app. And in June, Instagram rolled out a new feature that lets brands promote posts from influencers. Other analytics tools can help brands determine whether click-throughs from Instagram posts lead to actual customer sales.
- Quality is far more important than quantity. Modern marketing isn’t about eyeballs – it’s about impact. The reason social media have overtaken legacy media is because digital tools allow advertisers to send carefully crafted messages to exactly the people who are most likely to appreciate them. At the same time, people now look at screens all day, and cannot possibly remember every ad they see. A powerful ad that inspires a small number of people to take action will provide greater ROI for its brand than a watered-down ad that many people see and like, but then forget about a few minutes later. Being seen is nice; being remembered is essential. Given such a framework, it is easy to see how focusing too much attention on harvesting likes can lead marketers astray.
- Micro-influencers offer better value than big celebrities. The sheer diversity of opportunity in the modern world has allowed for an explosion of lifestyles and interests, where people are free to pursue their passions to incredible levels of depth. Some of us become soldiers or political activists, others turn into vegans or yoga aficionados. Some of us love comic books, while others train hard at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. If we picture society as a giant Venn diagram, then all of our circles are moving away from each other. Mega-influencers can unite us only on basic needs and interests; for all the rest, niche influencers offer far superior value, because they have spent years building up their credibility in a specific area. If your company makes surfboards, you’d rather have surf champion Kelly Slater as your star influencer than Kylie Jenner.
But what about those big celebrities? In any system, those at the top of the pyramid are likely to resist change; after all, they have nothing to gain and everything to lose. It is true that certain celebrities who coast along on name recognition alone may find that they have more pressure to raise the bar for quality in the posts they make.
So much the better. Insofar as the concept of buying likes grows obsolete, and value becomes more closely correlated with quality, a fairer and healthier social media ecosystem can have a chance to take root. An improved user experience soon leads to happier audiences, more time spent on the platform, and greater likelihood of conversions.
The road not taken
Through it all, one unaddressed issue looms large over the social media landscape: The general lack of regulatory or antitrust action against the social media giants. An upcoming Lexicon article will explore some potential consequences for Facebook in the wake of next year’s US election. Yet the salient fact remains that individual policy decisions by various social media platforms remain so consequential because there are no significant competitors that could represent alternative courses of action.
If your favorite brand of toothpaste changes their formula in a way that you don’t like, you can just switch brands. No such option exists for social media, as each of the major platforms is the undisputed king of its own particular niche. To us, Instagram’s latest test of revamping its likes and views metrics looks like a step in the right direction. In truth, however, the best way to settle on the right social media policy is through good, healthy competition that lets the public try out several different styles and interfaces, and decide for themselves which one makes them happiest.
Lexicon is a full-service digital marketing agency in Bangkok, Thailand. We specialize in corporate storytelling and produce all of our content in-house, including branding, copywriting, video production and graphic design. We bring all of our services together and use Digital PR and social media marketing storytelling to connect our clients with the ideal target audience.