In the ad industry, it’s our job to follow social media trends—whether it’s Facebook’s new ad campaign for groups (such as bazooka players) or bad behaviors accompanying Instagram addiction. Think: the 2017 Fyre Festival that defrauded thousands of music lovers, leaving many stranded in the Bahamas. Or, a travel couple with 25K followers who fell to their deaths trying to perfect a selfie in Yosemite National Park.
A study by the University of Pittsburgh Medical School says extensive social media use and depression are a vicious cycle. The more time people spend on social media, the more likely they are to become depressed; some people already demonstrating symptoms go to social media for connection—only for more loneliness to set in.
But it’s a fictional tragedy that’s making Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri address real-life dangers simmering on his platform.
You Like Me, You Like Me Not
In a recent New York Times interview with Amy Chozick, he said he decided to remove Instagram likes from public view while watching “Nosedive,” a dystopian episode of “Black Mirror” in which people can see each other’s public rankings in thin air like a telepathic Google Glass. The protagonist becomes unhinged at the wedding of a childhood friend who ranks higher. She winds up in jail after an outburst at the reception.
Employees executing Mosseri’s like-hiding plan—dubbed Project Daisy as in “you like me, you like me not”—have been testing the feature for several months in six countries: first in Canada, then Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand.
Mosseri announced at November’s Wired25 conference that tests on U.S. accounts, including some event attendees, would begin later that month.
The Times reports that Instagram will introduce the project later this year. Mosseri did not respond to a Facebook DM asking for clarification on how many U.S. accounts will be affected in 2020.
While questions remain, advertising executives, influencers and casual users have strong opinions on what removing Instagram likes means for the platform, from cautiously optimistic and cynical to downright exuberant.
“I have to commend the effort to just start to figure out, directionally, how they can change some of the behavior,” says Sarah Snyder Lyons, general manager of digital marketing company SocialCode. “Ultimately, is it going to make really big strides toward shifting the way people deal on the platform, the pressure, the anxiety? Or [go] as deep as eliminating bullying? It’s not going to solve those things.
“But it indicates to me that the platform wants to get ahead of what YouTube found itself in…after having such a massive role and scale and then advertisers finding out they were showing up next to hate speech.”
Looking for Approval
Or, Instagram is making up for its parent’s sins. Facebook has been the subject of outrage since the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its decision to allow fake political ads. Likewise, Mosseri could be taking a cue from Justin Rosenstein, who has stated publicly that he regrets creating Facebook’s like button.
Matt Klein, director of cultural strategy at marketing research firm Sparks and Honey, is skeptical of Instagram’s intentions, saying it’s an effective PR play.
“They’ve made their money and developed an impressive career, and now they’re saying ‘whoops, let’s make this right,’” Klein says. “The coincidental timing [reflects] the conscious reckoning in Silicon Valley.”
The young generation’s collective desire for superficial approval can’t be stopped so easily, says Marc Landsberg, CEO of creative agency SocialDeviant. Some Instagrammers dress up as if they’re going clubbing, post some selfies, undress, and go to sleep. He compares the trend to a waterfall that can’t go backwards while Klein sees Instagram as a drug supplier. If people can’t get dopamine spikes from likes, “you find another drug dealer.”
“The vanity metric ends up being really dangerous for people,” Landsberg says. “Removing Instagram likes is an important but insignificant step.”
On the positive side, it appears the public’s desire for authenticity is growing organically.
“In the last six to nine months, SnapChat has gotten traction,” Landsberg says. It’s what Instagram used to be—“unfiltered, unvarnished, you’re in your sweats, up early, up late. It is the opposite of ‘how great my life is.’”
Eric Sanchez, with 381 Instagram followers, proves Landsberg’s point.
While Mosseri’s posts are littered with spam about blocked accounts, @erics640 wrote him around the time of his Wired announcement and a trip to Asia.
“Please take my Instagram likes away!!!” he commented after Mosseri posted a photo of his Tokyo team. “It makes the experience feel more inclusive and I engage with the content I love without the negative pressure of feeling like everyone is competing on what is supposed to be a leisurely social platform. Also it seems the content that people post has improved as all of the fake follower people are gone.”
Working for Likes
At the other end of the spectrum are paid influencers such as L.A. designer Amy Royland, the woman behind @afashionnerd, an account with 136,000 followers. For years she dedicated herself to blogging and taking photographs on her building’s rooftop to build social currency; now she earns between $250 and $6,000 for each post on behalf of a brand.
Through it all, the pressure of acquiring likes has limited how frequently she can post; she’s needed to wait up to two days to maximize the public’s affection for each piece of content. Without the pressure, she can post three times a day.
Instagram’s decision is “amazing,” she says. “If brands want to know our engagement we can always see it on our end and screenshot it. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all.”
Developers are also innovating to adapt to Instagram’s changes. If, for example, influencers don’t want to have to send pictures to clients, they can use Socialinsider’s “Return of the Likes” app, available in the Chrome Web Store. The app—which makes Instagram likes reappear—has garnered about 3,000 downloads since December.
In the page’s overview section, the firm explains: “Instagram has stopped displaying the number of Instagram likes and comments in some areas—that makes the life of a Social Media person very complicated so we thought about lending a hand.”
The emergence of workarounds shows the relentless need for external validation, says Sparks and Honey’s Klein. If Instagram is serious about changing consumer behavior, then the company needs to communicate directly with everyday users, he says. Aside from the conference announcement and the NYT interview, neither Mosseri personally nor the company has said anything; nothing about Project Daisy appears on Instagram, the blog, or anywhere else on the corporate site.
“They need to say, ‘this is why we are removing it,” Klein says, “and explain why [people] are better off without it.”
The Dark Side of Likes
This is all too late for Jacqueline Jimenez.
Five years ago this month, members of South Florida’s social media community gathered for a memorial and a walk on the beach to honor the 28-year-old marketer and blogger who died by suicide on Jan. 27, 2015. On her Instagram page, she called herself “The Innovative Consultant and Public Speaker.” She had 546 followers.
Her friends continue to run the Jackie Jimenez RIP Facebook page, where people post tributes.
“We would work together,” says Karla Campos, owner of The Mompreneur Center, which provides marketing to women-owned businesses. “She was happy, motivated—someone you’d think would never do such a thing. It started going downhill because she wasn’t getting likes…She didn’t feel successful; she was comparing herself to others.”
Jimenez, who lived in Boca Raton, left a suicide note stating she felt “lonely” and “ignored,” Campos says. Yet BocaNewsNow.com, which does not regularly cover suicides, did cover Jimenez’s death because she was “notable.”
The site refers to her as a “social media expert” with over 3,000 Twitter followers.
A couple months before she died, she posted a motivational phrase with a pretty lavender background. “Be an encourager, the world has enough critics already.” She didn’t take it to heart, in the end.
It’s taken Campos years to get over her friend’s passing. If she could talk with her again, she would tell her to not take social media so personally. “She wasn’t where she wanted to be and felt people were ignoring her,” she says. “We were all trying to get our businesses up. We were not trying to hurt her.”