Will a like-free Instagram attract more users or not?

My flatmate Lauren, is a general Instagram user with 750 followers. She was lying on the sofa one very relaxing Friday night, scrolling down Instagram as usual. ‘Why I only got 37 likes for this post so far? I sent it yesterday and it has been over a day!’ The post she was complaining about was the selfie with me and another friend. She sent it without any filters, and simply added the words saying ‘Love this two’ below the picture.

However, as a dedicated Instagram user, with 750 active followers, she finally decided to repost. Later on, she added the ‘Sierra’ mode filter, tagged both me and another friend in that photo with the saying: ‘Loving spending time with my girls at uni (two hearts here). Will miss this next year (a flushing emoji here).’ For this post, she finally achieved 102 likes——65 like more after some efforts. She spent the rest of the Friday evening checking her Instagram account constantly and enjoying all the likes and comments.

Instagram feed

As you see, the amount of ‘likes’ on Instagram could be one of the influencing factors to my flatmate’s daily life, which brings both feelings of happiness and concerns. It was supposed to be a social media platform where most people should simply share good food or beautiful views but ended up as a competitive platform where everyone is eager to show the best side of their life, according to the Guardian. ‘ I will be upset by the not-enough-like post and more often, will just delete that’, as my flatmate said.

A 2019 Instagram research, conducted by the digital consumer intelligence company Brandwatch shows that the platform currently has more than 1 billion monthly active users, and 63% Instagram users use the app every day, making it the second most popular and engaged social media after Facebook. However, in 2016, Instagram made a big change to its algorithm by switching it into non-chronological feed, where information was shown based on the likelihood you will be interested in the contents, your interaction with other accounts and the timeliness of the post, according to a social media management platform Hootsuite. However, like other platform owners, Instagram does not publish details about their algorithmic architecture.

This is where rumours have started as users are questioning about how the algorithm works on the platform as some posts are recommended with fake ‘likes’ for good marketing, leading to misinformation, which to some extent, has an impact on user’s mental health issue. The situation is that the hidden algorithm depends on the order you are going to see the posts. Even though the algorithm is supposed to provide you with the ‘best’ posts, it surely will make users miss some contents as posts could be buried down in user’s feeds. Therefore, those posts with high like counts by other users, mostly the ones either sent by influencers or celebrities, are likely to be viewed first. As Natalia Anio said, a film studies student, who is also an active video creator with 7375 followers on Instagram, ‘Instagram definitely used to affect me as I always compared my ‘boring’ life with other girls’ or celebrities’ colourful life, especially their ‘wow’ body images, which made me not confident and not love myself for a while.’ It turns out that she only follows friends, family and people she finds inspirational right now.

Instagram definitely used to affect me as I always compared my ‘boring’ life with other girls’ or celebrities’ colourful life, especially their ‘wow’ body images, which made me not confident and not love myself for a while.’

——Ntalia Anio, a student from film studies

Instagram account by Natalia, authorised by her

In fact, according to a report published by RSPH and Young Health Movement in 2017, Instagram was considered as the most detrimental social media platform to young people’s mental health and wellbeing, together with Snapchat. As an image-focused platform, the report suggests that Instagram is easier to put users at the risk of suffering loneliness, depression and anxiety about their body, compared to other popular social media platforms.

Having been trying to make efforts on this issue, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced the test on hiding-like feature at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in April 2019. This was meant to create a ‘less pressurised environment’, as he said at the conference, and to focus less on the amount of like counts. However, in a 2018 paper, a scholar called Kelly Cotter suggested that some influencers believed that Instagram algorithm is able to accurately evaluate the relationship between users through authentic connectivity such as commenting and replying, not only by likes. This suggests that it is not ‘like’ that matters to the engagement, but more importantly, comments and hashtags which indeed affect algorithm and distinguish posts from others with marketing purposes. In fact, Instagram has already acknowledged its ban on using Bots or other automated devices in their Terms and Conditions.

While there are many concerns about mental health problems made towards Instagram, some general users doubt that feedback does not post any mental threats to their daily use. Alicia Gigi Ku, a student of HKUST, does believe that she got lots of positive inspirations from the platform and paid very little attention to like counts, ‘I am taking it as a place where I post my portrait photography, build a visual identity and record memories, so for me ‘likes’ is more about whether my content is engaging rather than self-affirmation’, she said. In fact, an academic journal, published by Christina and Andrew in 2018, emphasises the importance of the user’s own personality and self-presentation in the use of Instagram. It suggests that users with more flexible personality with being less negatively affected by Instagram feedback than those who are more maladaptive.

‘I am taking it as a place where I post my portrait photography, build a visual identity and record memories, so for me ‘likes’ is more about whether my content is engaging rather than self-affirmation’,

                                   ——Alicia Gigi Ku, a student from HongKong

So does a like-free Instagram really make a difference?

The answer is not clear but it really depends on what kind of roles users are playing on the platform. A like-free Instagram does not mean that like counts do not matter anymore, as it only hides like counts from viewers but not from creators. Instead, 41% Canadian influencers complained that engagement dropped terribly after hiding like counts, as Hootusuite showed. While like counts still really matter, my flatmate Lauren probably would feel much better compared to those influencers.