Thrive in our connected world

Instagram extends hiding “likes” to promote digital wellbeing

This week, Instagram is expanding its controversial test of hiding ‘likes’ to US accounts. Followers of some US accounts will no longer see the number of likes that the people they follow are receiving. Account owners will still be able to see how many likes they get, but these will now be private. Instagram’s like-hiding test now includes USA, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

Here’s what a likeless Instagram post looks like

Powered by Likes?

But won’t a like-less Instagram make Instagram less likeable? Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri says he’s putting user wellbeing over popular appeal “We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s wellbeing and health“.

But will the removal of “likes” on Instagram really help people’s wellbeing and health? It’s a seductive idea, based on the suggestion that like-counts invite “social comparison” and social comparison is bad for us. As Mosseri says “The idea is to depressurise Instagram, make it less of a competition“. The intention is to “reduce anxiety” and “reduce social comparison.”

Is social comparison bad?

Social comparison is a form of self-evaluation that happens when we compare ourselves to others. It’s the idea that you judge the quality of your posts based on how much they are liked by others, relative to posts from others (he or she who dies with the most likes wins).

This all sounds bad, but as social creatures, social comparison is a key source of information that we use to learn about ourselves, and that we rely on to evaluate our abilities and opinions, as well as improve our performance. By looking at posts that get lots of likes, we learn how to create better posts ourselves. In other words, social comparison is a form of social learning – learning from the success (and failures) of others.

That said, there is some evidence to suggest that certain kinds of social comparison can, in certain circumstances, dent our sense of self-worth (aka self-esteem). Specifically, if we compare ourselves to someone we look up to (e.g. a role model), a phenomenon that is known as “upward social comparison” and if this creates a “contrast effect” that emphasises the differences between us, then we may feel less good about ourselves.

However, on the other hand, if we compare ourselves through upward social comparison to someone we look up to, and this inspires us, teaches us, promotes resilience or makes us feel similar to them, then an “assimilation effect” of social comparison may potentially boost our self-esteem (sense of self-worth). So, at the very least, the effects of social comparison may depend on whether they result in “contrast effects” or “assimilation effects”. This holds for “downward social comparison” too; when we compare ourselves to less fortunate than ourselves and feel either similar (assimilation) or different (contrast) to them (#blessed).

Futile or diversionary?

Of course, all this talk of how Instagram may influence wellbeing depends on whether Instagram does actually influence wellbeing. Estimates from the Oxford Internet Institute suggest that only 0.4% of our wellbeing is influenced by technology use, including all social media. If so, it’s unlikely that any of the varied effects – positive and negative – of social comparison in social media related to relative like-counts will have a measurable effect on wellbeing. If there is any effect, I’d expect it to be the Instagram content itself and the filtered world that it represents, and not the like-count that most influences wellbeing. A cynic might wonder if the PR-able like-hiding experiment on Instagram is simply diverting attention as Instagram’s owner Facebook faces flak for not joining Twitter in removing AI-optimised and microtargeted political advertising from its platforms.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.