Does the likely death of the Instagram ‘Like’ signal the end of Influencer Culture?

By Ashley Boyle

Ever thought about how your image’s likes compare to your mates? Why do they have more likes than you? What are you doing wrong? Well, Instagram has acknowledged the competitive and dark nature of the little red heart and has decided to take action.

The image-sharing giant has removed the ability to see how many likes an image has received from its platform in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Ireland and Brazil as part of a new trial to protect its users. The idea was allegedly enforced to help improve the welfare of those on the app by removing possible contributing causes of negative mental health. However, many influencers who use the social media channel to make money have criticised the move and have expressed their fears for the future if this adjustment is to become permanent. 

Before delving into what this could mean for influencers, it’s worth discussing who they are and what they do. For those of you who are unaware, Instagram influencers are essentially popular people who are paid to do and have nice things in return for Instagram posts. These posts, which are sponsored by brands, are the magazine ads of the modern day. This model works on the basis that the promoted product will gain sales from those viewing the influencer’s content. In order to gain these opportunities, however, you first need to be noticed. How do we measure popularity in the social media world? Through the currency of likes, follows and shares. The wider your reach, the more likely you are to receive paid opportunities from brands.

The decision to remove the number of likes from view was supposedly made in order to release the pressures felt by users who do not have as many likes or followers as their peers. Mia Garlick, Facebook Australia and New Zealand’s Director of Policy, hopes that the changes will help those on Instagram “focus less on likes and more on telling stories”. This follows recent studies which have found that photo sharing on social media can have negative effects on self-esteem and mental health. The UK Royal Society for Public Health published a report that stated whilst Instagram provided a positive platform for self expression, it also had a negative impact on sleep, body image and FOMO (fear of missing out). But by being less exposed to “vanity metrics” and focusing more on non-judgemental content sharing, will the influencer industry continue to be profitable? 

Some influencers have embraced the challenge that comes with brands being unable to see their likes, expressing how the shots they now take will need to be even more creative and unique in order to stand out. After all, likes don’t necessarily represent good quality content, as the recent victor of the most Instagram likes has demonstrated – the world_record_egg picture on Instagram currently has nearly 54 million likes. It begs the question, do likes even matter? Mikaela Testa is one of the influencers who thinks they do. The Australian influencer posted a tearful video of her distaste in the changes. The “blood, sweat and tears” that have gone into her business are now being undermined by Instagram’s actions, she says. “Instagram is what I use for advertising. I’ve only been doing it for five months but I’ve made $45,000 since I started”. Jamey-Lee Franz, a male influencer, mentions how this change in format would limit new influencers by not giving them the opportunity to be found by brands based on user activity. Food and fitness influencer, Jem Wolfie, doesn’t believe that the loss of likes will reduce the problems that Instagram are trying to tackle, stating that there’ll just be more of a focus on followers, shares and comments instead.

Despite influencers’ fears, Instagram has stated that they need not worry as each sponsored post will be linked to the featured brand, sending across any analytical data to them. Furthermore, agencies have assured that the data can and will be found to help distinguish who to invest in. Roxy Jacenks who works for Ministry of Talent has said that whilst the loss of likes has not hindered their business decisions, it has definitely made them rethink the success of their sponsored ads, suggesting that the focus was shifted to likes success rather than the sales success of such posts.

The influencer industry is a fast-growing sector of advertising which has adapted, benefitted and thrived on an app originally created for social interaction and appreciation of images. Today, the current environment for influencers replicates the challenges more traditional forms of advertising, such as magazine and television ads, have had to face whilst coexisting alongside the internet. It is because of changes and advances that influencer culture itself exists, so is it right for influencers to become complacent? Ultimately, the shift of spotlight on what was once the humble ‘like’ will not only keep regular Instagram users protected ‘from each other’ but encourage current influencers to step up and adapt by being different (and therefore increase sales) or be left behind.