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You Can Hide But You Can’t Run: Instagram in an Age of Hidden Likes

You Can Hide But You Can’t Run: Instagram in an Age of Hidden Likes

We all know the saying, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” And that, my friends, is precisely the question that we marketers and influencers are mulling over in the wake of Instagram’s announcement that they are testing hiding like counts on posts. 

In this case, we face the new world question of physical truth versus human perception: if a photo is posted to Instagram and no one can see how many people liked it, will people still engage?

If you aren’t in the know on these recent Internet grumblings, Instagram has been testing hiding likes in several countries including Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil, and a few others since earlier this summer. Essentially, you can see two mutual friends who like the post and a vague, all-encompassing “others” who have liked a post instead of a total like count. And, in the last few weeks parent company Facebook has been hinting that they are thinking about following suit. 

Sure, the physical act of liking a photo will still be calculated in the metrics and visible to the individual themself, but will people still be inclined to like that photo of an influencer’s yogurt bowl without the public’s double tap of validation? This quandary of whether we will all still be “like-worthy” without the bandwagon mentality hangs in limbo as tests progress.  

Marketers aiming for optimism are flocking to the camp that this change will not only improve the general public’s overall anxiety regarding social media and increase their participation, but potentially elevate the quality and authenticity of content that gets posted to the platform. Their thinking is that, being untethered by optimal post times and the visual trends that typically amass large like totals, people may be encouraged to experiment and share without fear. The platforms’ original goal of interaction based on individual appreciation of authentic content, as opposed to a mass popularity contest, will be restored. We will all begin intrinsically understanding our self-worth instead of crying over low tallies on our pictures. Digital Shangri-La will be achieved as we become more than the sum of our likes at last. Or so they say. 

I am a cynic by nature, so why don’t you come on over to my camp for a spell and let’s play my favorite game: what’s the worst-case scenario? The worst-case scenario as I see it is a general slump in engagement across the board, especially in regard to influencer or brand content. Perhaps, without the public validation we crave, people will migrate to new platforms instead and our hard-earned followerships on Instagram will be for naught. Those who have built their livelihoods monetizing their feeds will be devastated and we (brands and influencers alike) will have to build a new elsewhere. 

Whether you are an optimist or cynic, I typically find the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Which means we must remind ourselves of a few stark truths before we get too hyped about the tests.

  1. Engagement finds a way. We can’t see like counts or interactions on Instagram Stories and they are without a doubt the biggest driver of engagement on Instagram right now. Facebook is also pushing Stories now more than ever based on the sister-platform’s overwhelming popularity. What if comments (arguably a much larger return on engagement) see an increase in the absence of public likes? 

  2. Shift from “vanity metrics”. Likes are attributed the smallest monetary value when we are looking at the media value of our influencers’ posts. Yes, they are still engagement and they help the overall engagement rate, BUT we as an agency are all for a shift away from vanity metrics like follower counts and likes. We prefer a focus on metrics that matter — conversions, link clicks, comments, and the almighty share. Influencer marketing has suffered some serious integrity issues of late with the rise in purchased followers and likes are one metric that’s difficult to measure the legitimacy of. Perhaps the move away from likes will, in fact, encourage less need for nefarious bot-tactics to gain more engagement.

  3. The trend is moving away from perfect. All the data about Gen Z — the next to inherit the throne as target market number one — points to a desire to see content that is more authentic and less polished. This likely means that a shift away from the competitive nature of Instagram  likes will encourage people to post more in-the-moment and less curated, posed, and picture-perfect content. 

So, what do I think will happen when and if likes disappear from the feeds entirely? I’ll tell you what, it’s evolution, baby. We’ve been in business since 2009 doing this ol’ social media and influencer thing and we have survived through about 700 iterations of platform migration, scandals, talk of “blogs being dead”, and everything in between. It wouldn’t be a Wednesday if Zuckerberg didn’t do something to fuck with my process as a marketer. YET, here we stand, the industry that sprang forth from the ruins of blogspot.com and MySpace set to hit 8 billion dollars this year. 

I’m not saying influencer marketing is too big to fail. I’m saying we are adaptable and we will follow where the people go, just as we always have. At the end of the day, all influencers are doing is telling a story. Storytelling will never die — it will just find new mediums. Those who can’t deal with that…now, they might die, but we here at Everywhere Agency will be learning, growing, and keeping up just as we’ve always done. 

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