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Instagram may not be “withholding likes”, but it’s still playing mind games

An erroneous story that Instagram was playing on our self-esteem felt real because our insecurities are so real, says Rachael Sigee

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By Rachael Sigee on

There are lots of excuses we can make when one of our Instagram posts doesn’t set our feed alight. It was the wrong time to post. No one is looking at Instagram on a Saturday night. The lighting was bad. Our caption wasn’t funny. We’re incredibly boring, gross to look at, no one likes us and our life is a horrible, worthless mess.

Over the weekend, we were offered another possible reason why we might not be seeing those likes rack up – that Instagram doesn’t dispatch our like notifications in real time. Instead, it collects them and drip-feeds them to us in order to mess with our fragile, validation-dependent brains and keep us checking in over and over again.

Except, it wasn’t true. The story was inflated, as so many stories online are, but it sounded true because we have been conditioned that our social worth is dependent on our online popularity and that we are in competition with everyone and everything for a finite amount of online recognition.

The tweet that started the story seized on a section of an article about antisocial technology and the (out-of-context) screenshot accused the company of “harvesting painful insecurities” and went viral with over 5.5K retweets.

Since then, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger has stated that they do not deliberately withhold likes or notifications in order to drive user engagement, rather that there may simply be a lag thanks to the algorithm and an attempt to avoid bombarding people. A delay in likes could be affected by any number of reasons, including geographical location or a sudden flood of engagement all at once.

The original author of the tweet, and a subsequent Quartz article, is being accused of spreading fake news and it would seem that, at best, it was a misunderstanding.

But many, many people were prepared to believe it was true – because our self-worth has become intrinsically linked to the popularity of our online persona and because our trust in the big technology companies is at a low.

In her book, The Cyber Effect, cyber-psychologist Dr Mary Aiken discusses the way in which technology amplifies and escalates human behaviour. This can be a positive thing – for example, people might be more altruistic and give more to charity. Or, it may have more worrying connotations, like being more of a bully or increasing hypochondria.

It sounded true because we have been conditioned that our social worth is dependent on our online popularity and that we are in competition with everyone and everything for a finite amount of online recognition

In the context of Instagram, if you’re a person who craves affirmation from other people, the currency of likes is likely to feed your need for a stamp of approval.

Anyone with relationships with younger brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews or teen children has a worrying story about concerns about not having enough likes online. And even those of us who would consider ourselves to have a relatively healthy relationship with social media would struggle to deny the flicker of satisfaction at seeing the little red hearts multiply.

Digital journalist Kim Easton-Smith has reframed her thinking on the topic: “Personally, I’d say I don’t care quite as much about likes as I used to. I’ve positioned Instagram in my head as a personal diary, so, to satisfy my need for likes in that way, I tend not to use hashtags on my personal snaps because I don’t care how many likes they get, but I put them on more generic pics like food or locations to encourage a bit of a likes boost.

“I do think the dopamine hit of a like is still super powerful, though. I have a private account with no followers that I intended to use as a memory-storage Insta and it’s just not the same. I don’t spend the same amount of time crafting the captions or thinking about the filters because I know it’s just for me.”

She also thinks that the way we use Instagram has changed how we view likes. “I wonder if it’s moved a bit on to Stories now? Like, being more interested in how many people follow your story to the end and whether they check back in the next day – are you interesting enough? And if you lose people, does that mean you’re boring? I think that probably has a big impact on self-esteem.”

Florence Eves, who is digital marketing manager for classical-music agency Intermusica, agrees that Stories has complicated the approach to using the platform: “We’ve never been ones to chase likes, but it’s always nice when a post gets a lot of love. Since the Stories feature launched, we’ve experienced much greater engagement on those and a slight dip in individual posts, so we’ve had to adjust our strategy to reflect that.”

She also thinks that followers are more important than likes: “Every new follower is an opportunity to make a connection that will hopefully last for some time. It’s too easy to hit the like button, but if someone follows you, it usually means they’re happy to view your content regularly on their feed, which is much more meaningful.”

So, likes might not be the most important thing any more, but not because we have all evolved to no longer need them. We still want to be loved… just by friends, followers, strangers and Story-watchers alike. And, whether or not the notifications tumble in all at once or trickle in over a few days (thanks, non-chronological timeline), we’ll probably still be on tenterhooks either way.

Just wouldn’t it be so much easier if, when they don’t, we could blame the system instead of ourselves?


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