SINGAPORE: In the movie, Avengers: Endgame, the villain, Thanos, wipes out half of the entire population with a snap of his fingers. He thinks all problems of the universe stem from over-crowding and decides to save the world from itself.
Although Thanos turns half of the population to dust, he doesn’t succeed in magically making the universe a better place. People instead suffer even more.
This isn’t a movie review, so don’t worry about spoilers. But what I’m about to tell you may kill your joy of using Instagram and social media.
Instagram has recently tested out hiding the number of likes on each post from some users in Canada, with this magic number visible only to account owners.
Doing so, it hopes, would help its users enjoy sharing photos and videos, without feeling the pressure to gain popularity through chasing after a high number of likes.
Many social media influencers strive to receive more likes, reactions and comments, which have become status symbols on the platform, and post only what they think will get traction with an audience.
This unhealthy dynamic has made many user feel as if Instagram has lost its true meaning in promoting self-expression and gravitated towards commercialising influence.
In one media outlet op-ed published last month, Wavemaker chief content officer Karthik Nagrarajan points out that the like button is “making platforms toxic and less fun”.
Karthik also points out that “hiding the like button could be the reset button” for the world. Doesn’t this remind you of Thanos’ snap?
Now, will Instagram’s attempt to hide likes solve our root problem or become another Thanos snap of the fingers?
MORE LIKES, MORE LOVE
The prevalence of social media in our daily lives has changed ways in which people interact with each other.
There are two basic reasons that social media users love to receive more likes.
Likes are related to extrinsic motivation such as monetary rewards. Many influencers on various social media platforms make money by co-creating content with brands, and the number of followers and likes on their social media accounts determine how much they get paid.
As brand marketers often relate the effectiveness of advertising with the number of likes, users often strive for more likes.
Social media influencers can earn up to millions if they had a huge following. For instant, Youtube’s highest paid content creator, 7-year old Ryan ToysReview, who has over 19 million subscribers makes US$22 million in one year, Forbes reported in 2018.
In Singapore, influencers can charge hundreds or thousands for one Instagram post.
Likes are also related to intrinsic motivation such as social approval. Since social approval with immediate feedback satisfies a very basic human need, users’ self-esteem has become more dependent on likes.
Some social media users take extreme actions to attract more likes.
Last year a young couple died after attempting to take photographs near the edge of a cliff and falling from great heights at Yosemite National Park.
Just a few weeks ago, another woman also died after she lost her footing and fell over the edge of a waterfall in California while taking a selfie.
My earlier research suggests one of the driving factors behind the rise of social media is the desire to make a good impression for many people.
People want to show off the most enjoyable moments of their lives and are encouraged to post more of such moments on Instagram when they experience that dopamine hit with each like received.
This is why people take photos of delicious-looking foods, enjoying the sunset in a beautiful resort, or posing at exotic “instagrammable” places. And the heart of such impression management and identify formation is validation from others, which the like button caters to.
In face-to-face meetings, we can tell whether we have made a good impression by reading non-verbal cues such as facial expressions or body movements.
However, on the Internet, it is not easy, if not impossible, to read reactions from the audience. The like button here then becomes a vivid expression of concurrence.
HIDING LIKES WON’T BRING BACK HAPPINESS
Likes serve to give us a sense of our social approval ratings and popularity, regardless of whether we ourselves actually like using the button. Even if the count is visible to us, having this number be publicly visible is a vindication of our status.
So when it’s removed, this validation is taken away. Some users in Canada have said this cold turkey effect is tough to deal with. This is why removing or hiding the number of likes cannot bring back happiness for everyone.
Hiding likes may remove the pressure for popularity, but at the same time it may also remove the joy of using social media.
Although such an experiment is worth a try, a more holistic solution may arise if we better understand the fundamental desire of social media users behind this metric: Whether it serves an impression management tool, a reflection of social approval, a popularity indicator, or just plain fun.
WHAT CAN HELP?
What then would be an alternative way of resolving the concern regarding the likes? Stepping back from chasing after likes is one way.
Perhaps, we can also learn from the history of constructive destruction.
In his book on The Failure of Antitrust and Regulation, the late Yale University professor Paul MacAvoy argued that the constant efforts and huge investments by the US government in imposing regulatory and antitrust constrains on long distance telephone services in the 1990s did not lead to more competitors entering the market.
Ironically, the long distance phone market became more vibrant, when wireless networks, a new technology, arrived in the late part of the same decade.
To apply this lesson to today’s social media, if users begin to find having the number of likes shown on their account hateful, Instagram risks the entry of a new social media platform that can minimise drawbacks but allow a more subtle way of expressing admiration to flourish.
READ: An unhealthy culture of consumerism on social media is fueling anxiety and low self-esteem, a commentary
Perhaps Instagram recognises this and is trying to disrupt itself first before others can muscle in: One reason why it’s doing away with likes.
Still, it remains to be seen if such changes will help the platform get back to basics and rekindle the love of self-expression that made it successful in the first place.
Or whether after it snaps its fingers, it will find new opponents swarming to take it down, just like Thanos did.
Jung Younbo is associate professor at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in Nanyang Technological University.