Social media sites are attempting to recognize and rectify potential negative effects on user experience. Instagram’s recent feature allowing users to choose whether to display a like count on their posts is arguably a step in the right direction. But, more work is required by both the interface and the user as this feature targets only a bit deeper than the surface-level problems associated with social media.
In college, especially at a school like the University of Michigan, there seems to be a great deal of pressure surrounding the ability to accurately depict a Game Day Saturday. Justifiably so, the block M and iconic maize and blue attire irrefutably make any feed look better, but when you unpack the motivation behind a post, some of that initial Instagrammable allure is lost.
When posting something on Instagram, it’s common to be motivated by the influx of ‘like’ notifications by completing some sought-after aesthetic. This is something I grapple with, and in no way do I mean to sound like a complete hypocrite. One scroll through my camera roll will reveal tons of nearly identical pictures of me and my friends; you’ll find pictures with different angles and different facial expressions all to capture something we may later deem worthy of our social media feeds. The ability to mask the number of likes on a given post has allowed me to not place as much weight on a number I can acknowledge is essentially meaningless and instead, expend my mental energy on more important things.
Delving deeper, it is important to attempt to understand the reason why social media platforms make certain decisions or changes. Social media has become entangled in our day-to-day lives in a way that is unmatched by any other 21st-century entity. As a result, it is influential in the ways that people perceive the world around them and the ways individuals perceive themselves. This is not necessarily all bad, but staring at Instagram influencers and having a quantifiable number of likes to compare yourself with certainly isn’t good for your mental health.
On the other hand, getting rid of a viewable likes button for your followers doesn’t exactly get the job done either. Yes, it is refreshing to not really care if I hit some mentally-tailored number I had envisioned achieving, but the fact of the matter remains: I cared before because of what other people saw or thought. This ties into a psychological term called “The Spotlight Effect.”
The Spotlight Effect, as it is described by Allison Bernique, is a form of egocentric bias that describes someone’s constant overestimation of onlookers who notice something awkward or desirable about them. As it relates to social media, particularly Instagram, users are given an unfortunate opportunity to severely blur the line between posting to showcase moments of life and posting to impress some phantom online presence. Social media, political news coverage and memes, like people in real life, will never be perfect and unproblematic. Their existence in and of itself causes controversy, but also can contribute to societal progression.
Instagram initiating this new feature shows that even the platform itself can recognize the nature of likes as a breeding ground for unhealthy comparisons, increased social anxiety, body dysmorphia and more. The ability to choose whether you display your likes is a good way to institute something new without forcing all users to comply. If likes on Instagram are something you like to see whether it be that you’re apathetic about it or driven by each tick toward 500, it is more reasonable to leave that option in your hands. Regardless of what you choose, the presence or lack of likes means almost nothing without the right perspective accompanying this decision.
On their blog, Instagram announced this change of choosing to display like count and, with it, shared some meaningful sentiments that I wish were more publicly reinforced — “What one person wants from their Instagram experience is different from the next, and people’s needs are changing.”
Turning off my like count was a decision that allowed me to stop checking my phone every 10 minutes after posting something to “see how it was doing,” as if the minute by minute update of the likes streaming in somehow indicated whether or not my picture was, by social media standards, successful. The problem is not all solved and honestly, I do not think the responsibility solely falls on the platform to fix.
Ultimately, social media should be whatever you want to make of it. If you choose to thrive on the likes you get on a post and can confidently curate content that even potentially garners job opportunities, that is just as respectable as posting WhiteClawGabe videos in the middle of an otherwise normal swipe of pictures of you and your friends out to dinner.
At the end of the day, I think having the choice to turn likes off is definitely indicative of progress, but without perspective alongside this change, it becomes far less impactful. Personally, I am making a conscious effort to join the Make Instagram Casual Again movement because I’m a student at the Best University in the World, and if I want to post a 2 a.m. picture of my best friends and me chaotically waiting for a fresh mozz slice at Joe’s, then why the hell not?
Jess D’Agostino is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.