In 2016, a study published in the Psychological Science journal recorded the effects of social media ‘Likes’ on the brains of teenagers ages 13-18. They were shown 148 photographs (including 40 photos that each teen had submitted) with random numbers of Likes attached to them that the researchers had previously decided on. (The participants didn’t know they were fake Like numbers until after the experiment had been completed.) Naturally, when the teens saw their own photos with a large number of Likes, researchers saw a large amount of activity in the nucleus accumbens—the region of the brain that recognizes rewards. They also saw increased activity in the regions known as the social brain and regions linked to visual attention.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is that in deciding whether to click Like themselves, the teens were highly influenced by the number of Likes the photos already had. “When they saw a photo with more likes, they were significantly more likely to like it themselves,” lead author Lauren Sherman said. “Teens react differently to information when they believe it has been endorsed by many or few of their peers, even if these peers are strangers.”
“In the study, this was a group of virtual strangers to them, and yet they were still responding to peer influence; their willingness to conform manifested itself both at the brain level and in what they chose to like,” said Mirella Dapretto, a senior author of the study. “We should expect the effect would be magnified in real life, when teens are looking at likes by people who are important to them.”
Does this sound familiar? Do you also consciously or subconsciously engage in the same behavior? I’m not going to lie—I certainly do. When I see a large number of Likes under a post that I like, my opinion feels validated—so therefore I click Like. When I see a small number of Likes under a post that I want to Like, I tend to shy away from doing that because it makes me feel like a little bit of an outcast and a tiny bit weird. It tells me that whatever it is I like about this picture isn’t “normal”…so Instagram decided to rectify that behavior.
On November 14th, Instagram took away the ability of individuals across the U.S. to see the amount of Likes on other people’s posts. For the past few months, the company has tested this feature in Canada, Italy, Ireland, and other countries. Last month, it finally hit the U.S. “The idea is to try and depressurize Instagram,” head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told Wired. “Make it less of a competition. Give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, things that inspire them.” (Instagram is also targeting sensitive content and anti-bullying restrictions as part of its push to protect the mental health of its users.)
While I’m not denying the benefits of this change, I couldn’t help but immediately notice the detriments. I can’t easily see the engagement on the content I create for our clients. I can’t easily see the engagement on relevant posts of potential and current influencers for our clients. I can’t easily see how well the posts of our competitors are doing. All I can see are “Liked by [enter username here] and others” (which ranges from 1 to 999 others) OR “and thousands of others” (which ranges from 1000 to 999,999 others). Those ranges are wide and can mean vastly different things when compared to a users’ follower count. And even though there are engagement tools and trackers I could use to help me determine this information, my ability to just do this kind of research and tracking while I’m out and about has drastically decreased.
Social media has always been about immediacy. It’s often seen alongside the phrase “instant gratification”. It’s a technology specifically tailored to hold our eight-second attention span (“You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish”, McSpadden, May 14, 2015, TIME). So why is Instagram seemingly doing something that’s in disservice of that?
Well, I started doing some research and that’s when I started looking outside of my microcosm of a bubble. I realized there is a much bigger picture here that I wasn’t seeing—that maybe while Instagram might’ve solely (or, at the very least, mainly) had mental health in mind—this could be a step in the right direction for public relations. Likes are an outdated measure of a post’s effectiveness anyway. Someone may see a post and never like it, but they’re still being exposed to it. That seed of intrigue gets planted whether someone looks at a post for two seconds or ten. If they like (lowercase L) what’s being shown to them, they’ll be just as interested in your client’s product whether they tap on a heart icon or not.
So focus on content: on making it interactive, visually appealing and useful; on community engagement: on making sure you’re not only replying to all comments on your posts but on others’ posts to keep your audience engaged; on Instastories: on sharing stories you’re tagged in by fans and using polls or questions to get your audience to engage with you; and even on IGTV: because content that lives here is favored in algorithms.
Instagram may be taking away a feature that we’ve long taken for granted but maybe this is the wake-up call we needed. Maybe the end isn’t nigh. Maybe this is just the beginning of a social media revolution. Both content and consumption should always have been driven by our brains and our hearts and not by our egos. At the end of the day, maybe numbers are just numbers. Quality should always be prioritized over quantity.
To quote Jim Tobin of Forbes, “inspirational and aspirational content fosters brand discovery online and that is among the things people very much enjoy about social networks and the content we see there.” We need to bring this mindset to our workplace if we’re even going to think about making waves and moving that all-important needle.
South Florida native Sarah Sharpe is an independent social media and public relations consultant and valued Bisbee and Company partner.