So it is official, Instagram is trialing the removal of their in-app currency ‘likes’. But don’t panic and sell off your stock just yet as the trial is happening on select accounts in Canada to measure the effects of such a central change. Let’s look back on how we got to this seemingly major change in tack, what the potential ramifications could be, and why your 6 likes you fight tooth and nail for are just as affected as an influencers 6000.

Health on social media

The removal of this social currency comes in the wake of what may be someday tracked as the moment in society that attention towards the psychological impact of social media became noticeable. Privacy, personal wellbeing and ‘pausing’ social media are all in vogue. An assertion perhaps best cited by an article about leaving social media literally in Vogue. Especially in the UK where especially Instagram have been under the spotlight for their contribution to mental health. This comes off of the back of a more weighty subject, likely requiring its own attention, that “In recent days, a report compiled by the Office for National Statistics found that the suicide rate among British teenagers has almost doubled in the last eight years, with social media being linked to the increase.”

With that comes the weighty responsibility for Instagram of managing their impact on the worlds mental health, a major undertaking that perhaps is not rectified with a disclaimer.

“We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get.”

The message to Canadian testers in the Instagram app

History in the making

Likes then are an intricately complex system that has been the core of social media apps since their inception. Interestingly, Vimeo was first to deploy the ‘thumbs up’ in 2005. Whilst Facebook, the ubiquitous ‘like driven’ social network only adopted it in 2009. These “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”, as they are called by the implementor of the Facebook Like button Justin Rosenstein, are now difficult to separate from content sharing platforms. It would seem almost alien for someone to get content in front of you without you being able to reciprocate this with some kind of gesture.

Buying attention

Now, for as little as $1.49 you can buy them in bulk to show your friends just how essential they are to your life. This is just one massive industry of somewhat shady businesses that will be ended entirely should this rollout. Of course, for many influencers this small cost is far outweighed by the benefits as likes and engagement are often factored into deals worth £1,000’s per post. Real influencers, therefore, will have to adapt as it becomes harder to show real engagement, aside from through comments. Influencer channels meanwhile will have to tweak their ‘engagement scores’ (test yours here) attached to influencers in order to maintain their significance as more visible forms of measuring the value of content gets hidden.

Twitter user @janewong first spotted the testing before the A/B test in Canada

Transforming the value of content

This change likely helps advertisers as it becomes easier to hide in a timeline with no ‘prejudgment’. Posts, in general, are more equal and can be judged on their content and character, not an artificial number outside of the image/video. In this way, Instagrams move looks like a pre-emptive strike to maintain the value of content. Content that for a long time had been artificially inflated by the value of likes attributed to it. In this way the move could be beneficial specifically to advertisers, content that is useful rather than popular has the potential to impact people far more. Marketing teams can potentially benefit from these changes but it would now take a serious focus on what content people want to see, not just what is ‘popular’ now.

Instagram, therefore, looks set to be the first but maybe not the last, to ditch the despotic display of depreciating discourse. In supporting people and not numbers it is down to Canada to prove this change is at its heart a lot less major and more of a return to the core offering of Instagram.

“Popular isn’t necessarily a measure of quality – it’s a visual platform it should be dictated by the quality of the content not peoples perception of it.”

Isobelle Brown

Ultimately there are a lot of positives that could come from a focus on ‘comments’ and well-being in general. I can only hope that their changes are beneficial for the majority of users and I most certainly wonder what will happen to the influencers and businesses that rely on likes. In a worse system to now influencer channels could demand screenshots showing how many likes any one post gets in order to become the social arbiter of what is valuable content at any one time. Controlling information of what is good content in a post likes age will be powerful, but maybe the point is not to chase the “dings” and instead get to the heart of what good content really is. Advertisers should see this as a chance to reclaim the relevance that quality content can provide. Finally, It is also a warning, as businesses that rely on businesses can have their whole business model shifted on them overnight.