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If there’s one feature or function that seems to define the modern social media landscape, it’s the “like.” The near-ubiquitous like can be found on every social media platform, and serves as a quick and easy way to determine just how popular or viral a post has become. But now Instagram is giving serious thought to ending the current system of likes. As the social media platform sees it, the whole system of likes has somehow become toxic: starting in 2019/2020, Instagram will begin hiding likes for U.S. users. This follows a soft launch of like-hiding in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand. Which, of course, leads to the obvious question: Are we really ready for the end of the “likes” era?
Time to re-think social media engagement metrics
Of course, Instagram is not referring to this as the end of the likes era, and is careful to point out that it is only testing this feature in the U.S. market. If the soft rollout works as planned, then it might make it a permanent feature. But it’s hard not to see the writing on the wall. Sooner rather than later, brands need to start preparing for a brave new world without any likes in it.
Get ready for a new term – “social media demetrification” (i.e. the end of social metrics) – to gain currency with digital marketers and social media influencers. This term – first spotted in a WIRED article – refers to removal of traditional engagement metrics from social media posts. For example, if you see a photo of a bikini-clad social media influencer drinking a glass of Rosé wine on a yacht in the South of France, you will no longer be able to tell how many people “liked” the post, or how viral the post has become online. You will simply see that someone liked the post.
New business models
Theoretically, this change is being made to make Instagram the “safest place on the Internet,” free from peer pressure, cyberbullying, or unrealistic social expectations. As long as at least one person liked your post, it won’t matter if 100 people or 100,000 people liked your post. That might be good news for teens and young social media users, but it’s an utter nightmare for brands and social media influencers.
The whole social media influencer game, after all, is based on numbers. The more followers you have, the more likes you can generate, and the more money you can get paid. So the end of the likes era is obviously going to result in a major change to the business models of social media influencers. How do you prove your value without likes?
Moreover, the whole brands-as-publisher model is also going to come into question. In the content marketing era, brands created as much content as they could, and often used “likes” and “follows” as a way of keeping score. If they wanted to compete with the biggest brands, or if they wanted to signal that their upstart brand had momentum behind it, the way to do that was by growing likes and follows.
Will brands decide to leave Instagram?
It’s hard to believe that brands and influencers are going to give up on social media engagement metrics entirely. It might be the case, for example, that brands and influencers simply migrate to social media platforms where they can use likes (or maybe just emoji smiley faces) as a form of social media currency. Keeping score is now ingrained in the way we think about social media.
From that perspective, Instagram’s decision to do away with the like might actually be planting the seeds for its future demise. If big-name brands depart Instagram and look elsewhere for proof of engagement, then Instagram might be facing an existential crisis of its own making much sooner than it ever anticipated.