October 15, 2019

NGUYEN | Instagram Removing Likes Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

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I initially downloaded Instagram on my hefty anchor of a first-generation iPad. I remember the beginnings of the social platform well: its tan camera logo adorned with a rainbow stripe, its unflattering in-app photo filter options, its young userbase experimenting with this novel concept of “social media” for the first time.

But since its introduction to the world in Oct. 2010, Instagram has been through a lot of changes, from countless user interface upheavals to a notorious $1 billion acquisition by Facebook. Nevertheless, Instagram has thrived in its popularity among youths — and as a result, it’s strengthened its hold on youth culture. It generated a norm out of taking pictures for the sole purpose of posting them; it produced an entire brigade of “influencers” who draw their livelihood through sponsored posts. It grew as a giant in the social media industry, making space for social activism, intercultural communication and long-distance connection. But, most notably, it altered the fabric of how young people receive social gratification. Instagram, whether by design or by coincidence, redefined the ways in which individuals perceive their social identities: users have forged an association between status and the proliferation of likes received on each post.

But now, Instagram’s taking that away. It’s a change that’s bound to restructure how users view the app — but eliminating the “like metric” won’t redress the harmful impacts of Instagram’s current model.

In July 2019, Instagram officially announced a new experiment in select countries: The app would be erasing the visibility of each Instagram post’s likes. When put into practice, users would still be able to tally up the likes that their own posts garnered — but they wouldn’t be able to view the number of likes on other users’ posts. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri clarified the purpose behind this bold move, reasoning, “We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people they care about.”

The launch of this new update has already taken place in seven countries, a display of Instagram’s determination to push through with this new initiative. It’s a bold move, one that remolds the very essence of Instagram in favor of mental health. It’s a decision that will eradicate the like-based social obsession that Instagram constructed years ago.

Or at least, that’s the goal. Personally, I don’t think it’ll pan out.

Sure, I respect Instagram’s objective to remove the destructive, superficial culture often associated with social media. Instagram, specifically, has acted as a breeding ground for promoting unrealistic body standards, cyberbullying and manufactured representations of users’ lives. The social platform’s latest move displays an effort to combat these issues, but I doubt that it’s enough to dismantle the negative reverberations left behind in its wake.

The toxic addiction to procuring more likes on Instagram isn’t just the sole flaw of Instagram in and of itself; it’s merely a symptom of a larger issue. For most Millennials and Generation Z, Instagram played a formative role in our childhood and adolescence. I can recall scrolling through RelatableTeenagePostsTM and random candids on my massive iPad once I got home from school each day. But as Instagram developed over the years, I witnessed as the content of the app shifted. Meme pages and unflattering spontaneous posts gave way to the rise of Instagram influencers and carefully crafted photos of feigned smiles. Eventually, employing Instagram as a means to curate our social profiles became a norm. We became more adept at documenting our lives through social media, snapping flicks and recording videos with pointed intention. The highlight of most vacations comes after the actual trip — when we receive social fulfillment through the volume of notifications that appear in the Activity tab after a post. We spend hours painting our Instagram feeds to convey a popular-but-quirky, artsy-but-playful, composed-but-natural aesthetic.

Today, we find ourselves reliant on Instagram in a detrimental way. We’re not just posting pictures for the sole sake of likes anymore; we’ve internalized the superficial nature of social media in a way that transcends any platform’s offerings. Social media has made us hyperaware of the self-image that we cast to the public. Through Instagram, we search for validation of our social identities by reminding our followers of our latest achievements, our extravagant vacations and our late nights of binge-drinking Keystones in the grimy basement of a random frat. And through Instagram, we experience the throes of insecurity, body image issues, lack of confidence and unhealthy comparisons to unattainable standards.

Though Instagram’s latest endeavor is well-intentioned, I don’t predict that it will amount to an effective decimation of the pitfalls associated with the platform. The typical functions of the application will still remain the same: permanent profiles, notifications of likes and comments, the ability to follow and be followed. The only change will be a reduction in the weight placed on likes. Sure, the update might encourage people to post more content that reflects their actual personality — but the root of the problem doesn’t stem from an unchecked desire to garner more likes. Rather, the issue derives from the internalized need to maintain one’s social presence online.

I respect Instagram’s attempt to alter the toxic reliance on social media gratifications. However, I hope that the platform will pursue stronger initiatives in the future that will tackle the heart of the problem, rather than just a symptom of it. By implementing direct strategies to curb dependency on the app, like promoting its in-app activity time limit, and running campaigns to decrease Instagram-induced insecurity, like highlighting user diversity in ethnicity and body image, Instagram can revamp itself into a more inclusive, accepting platform.

Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at nnguyen@cornellsun.com. Unfiltered runs every other Wednesday this semester.