Every day, some 95 million photos and videos are uploaded to Instagram. And every day, Instagram users can scroll through those pictures and videos’ 4.2bn ‘likes’.
Or, they could.
In July, Instagram announced it would remove the visible ‘like’ counts in six countries, including Australia and New Zealand, following a trial in Canada. While users can see their own like counts, their followers cannot.
We’re several weeks into the ban – has it changed how Instagram works? Depends on who you ask.
Some Australian influencers criticised the move. Jem Wolfie, a food and fitness influencer from Perth with 2.7 million followers, complained on national radio that Instagram had taken away a critical tool. A young Melbourne Instagrammer, Mikaela Testa, tearily took to YouTube denouncing the platform’s move. Both women were immediately bombarded with jibes from across social and mainstream media to ‘get a real job’.
For them, however, and many others, Instagram is a real job. Some, like Australian fitness influencer Kayla Itsines, can amass significant wealth. Itsines, who has nearly 12m followers and a fitness app and program, was reported to be worth more than 46 million Australian dollars ($31 million) last year, combined with her Instagramming fiancé.
Why did Instagram turn likes invisible? To create a “less pressurised environment” and to address mental health concerns for its users, Instagram head Adam Mosseri said at a conference in California earlier this year. Cyberbullying is rampant, and many influencers chase likes to the point of burnout. But some fear the move makes it harder for them to make a living.
Interestingly, a month into the change, many influencers – at least publicly – are welcoming the move, and shrugging off concerns about the threat to their income.
Fitness influencer Tammy Hembrow, who has 9.7m followers on her main account, thinks the 'like' ban will make Instagram feel less like a popularity contest (Credit: Tammy Hembrow)
The ‘like’ ban
Instagram influencers make money by partnering with advertisers to promote their goods within their posts or through temporarily visible ‘Stories’. Influencer Carmen Huter says a general rule of thumb is that a creator with 100,000 followers might be able to ask for $1,000 a post, but that can vary dramatically based on the level of user engagement: the more ‘likes’, comments and shares from their following, the more valuable the influencer.
On Instagram, fitness influencers might promote their own meal-planning programme, a travel influencer might sell prints of their work, or fashion influencers may partner with large lines or brands.
Tammy Hembrow, a fitness and beauty Instagrammer with 9.7 million followers on her main account, has her own athletic line and fitness app, and partners with brands to promote them on her feed. She says that the change had not impacted the way she does business.
Now people focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many ‘likes’ there are – Tammy Hembrow
“‘Likes’ became more of a popularity contest,” she says. “But what I feel companies are really interested in are the impressions and actions taken from the posts.” For example, demographics and locations of her followers, or impressions – how many times a post has been viewed. She also thinks the ‘like’ ban means her followers can better appreciate her work.
“Now people focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many ‘likes’ there are.”
Max Doyle, managing director of a Sydney-based influencer marketing agency, says that it is too early to determine results from the trial, but does forecast “a reduction in engagement” if ‘likes’ are invisible to fans. “And engagement is like digital currency for influencers,” he says. “It will just mean that marketers [working with influencers] will have to be a bit more savvy.”
The days of an influencer simply posing with some chewing gum with a caption about how she loves her fresh minty breath are over, he says. People will need to get more creative: maybe photographing that gum in a beautiful display of the inside of an Instagrammer’s handbag of essential daily items.
Instagram head Adam Mosseri speaking in April. Instagram has been under intense scrutiny for bullying, and some are unsure if the 'like' ban will help (Credit: Getty Images)
Joe Gagliese, co-founder of a global influencer agency based in Canada, says that for influencers, the removal of ‘likes’ is “more of a shock to their ego than their trade”. It has been years since he has seen any agencies pay influencers based on how many ‘likes’ a post gets, mainly because that system was so easily corrupted.
Having to re-strategise every time a platform changes in order to continue working is probably adding more mental strain to influencers – Crystal Abidin
Gagliese agrees with Doyle that the main impact will be encouraging influencers into the comments to promote other forms of engagement. However, Gagliese has concerns that it is in the comments and direct messages where the bulk of the damaging bullying and harassment takes place.
Already some fans have begun to subvert the ‘invisible likes’ system, says Crystal Abidin, senior research fellow in internet studies at Curtin University in Western Australia. “We see fans strategising by leaving multiple comments. Perhaps instead of leaving one comment saying ‘I love you so much’, they’ll put one word into each line, leaving five comments to create that bulk of activity.” This strategy is to create more comments. They’re still trying to play a numbers game, hoping that it reflects well on their favoured influencer.
She says that the change forces users to reflect more on whether and why they ‘like’ a piece of content, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon of a well-liked picture.
Huter's Instagram account has 132,000 followers, she partners with tourism boards, camera companies and adventure clothing brands, among others (Credit: Carmen Huter)
Mental health concerns
A spokesperson for Facebook, Instagram’s owner, told BBC Worklife that “This test only makes your like count private to others, so that you’re able to focus less on likes and more on telling your story.”
Joanne Orlando, a senior lecturer in education and digital lifestyle at the University of Western Sydney, says the change will possibly “allow people to feel that they don’t have to be overly glamourous or overly beautiful to be able to post content on Instagram.”
Things change and feeling like you own Instagram is very dangerous because, really, Instagram owns you – Carmen Huter
However, Abidin says that by changing the way the platform functions, there could be added strain to some who make their living on the platform. “Removing the public likes probably reduces the pressure to be ‘on show’ to others, but the basal anxieties and precarity of the industry as a whole is still there,” she says.
“Having to re-strategise every time a platform changes in order to continue working is probably adding more mental strain to influencers,” she says – they are reliant on the whims of the platform. “As much as they’d like to think of themselves as independent entrepreneurs in this space, all it takes is for the people in charge of the platforms to make a decision for everything to change.”
‘We don’t own Instagram’
Carmen Huter takes beautiful pictures from beautiful places. With 132,000 followers, the New Zealand-based Austrian is a micro-influencer in the travel world, partnering with organisations ranging from tourism boards to camera companies and adventure wear labels.
Huter believes that changes won’t impact her income, but her value may be measured differently. Instagram, she says, has no obligation to its users, and it is a folly to think so.
“Things change and feeling like you own Instagram is very dangerous because, really, Instagram owns you. We are all a product. Whether we make money out of it or not, we are all a product and they monetise us every single day.
“It’s a fine line to walk, because I owe so much of my success to this platform,” she says. “But, at the end of the day, I also owe so much of it to the time I put into it, and I can’t forget that.”