Instagram Accidentally Hid Likes, and It Was a Glimpse of a Better Future
There’s been no shortage of history-altering moments the last year: the Coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. election, the January 6 insurrection. Last night, when it appeared Instagram finally made good on its years-long threat to do away with likes, I thought we were experiencing another. I opened the app and there it was—the same endless stream of photos, but this time accompanied by only one visible like from a single account, followed by “and others.” The numbers had been replaced by the vaguest descriptor, and I felt totally … free.
It was short-lived. Not long after I exchanged a bunch of “they finally did it!” messages with friends and coworkers, Instagram announced that, whoopsie, they didn’t mean to. While it appears the app is still planning to hide likes some day, last night’s test run wasn’t supposed to include quite so many people.
We've been testing a new experience to hide likes on Feed posts. We unintentionally added more people to the test today, which was a bug — we’re fixing this issue and restoring like counts to those people as soon as possible.— Instagram Comms (@InstagramComms) March 3, 2021
Already, my feed is back to “normal.” Unlike me, many users are breathing a sigh of relief. Especially for creators, likes are a form of engagement that often determine their success working with brands and lets them know what content their followers most enjoy. But for regular people like me, likes are a poison, and now that I’ve glimpsed life without them, I never want them back.
Instagram started as a place to document the moments you value from your life. My first post from 2012 is from a walk with my dogs (one of whom has now passed away), heavily tinted with a clunky border. That was de rigueur at the time, but like low-rise jeans it’s hard to think I ever thought it looked good. It has just three likes, but that didn’t matter. It was a nice memory, and that’s all I needed to know to make it worth documenting.
A few years later I was a camp counselor for 14-year-olds. One night, they discovered my Instagram, and mercilessly mocked me for how few likes I was getting on my photos.
“Well, what’s a normal amount?” I asked. They showed me their pictures, which received hundreds of likes from not just friends, but anyone who went to their school, even if they never really spoke.
It was still a couple more years before I started hitting those numbers, thanks mostly to becoming a writer on some popular women’s websites that steered people to my social media. Suddenly, a ton of strangers were liking my memories, and it didn’t take long before I let them start choosing them as well. A photo of something I was proud of? Eh, according to the likes, that wasn’t that interesting. A photo of just me, not really doing anything other than interrupting time with my friends to make them take a bunch of pictures of me in front of a wall? Now that’s the good stuff, apparently.
The more I used Instagram, the more important that seemed. After the initial burst of serotonin from a post slowed to a trickle and the likes stopped pouring in, I’d take stock. Did it get over 100 likes? If so, it stayed on my page. Otherwise, it would get archived along with the rest of my failures. I couldn’t let a passing viewer know that my followers were anything but enamored with me.
Sometime in the past two years, I became cognizant of how Instagram had rewired my brain. I stopped posting on my feed as much, preferring instead to use Stories precisely because the “worth” of what I do on a day-to-day basis isn’t calculated and stamped underneath every dispatch.
But last night, when I saw the likes were gone, I went back into my archive. I restored a bunch of memories I had hidden away, no longer even able to see myself what the original like count was. Finally, the decision of what held value was up to me again.
I realize how insane this sounds and that I could use a healthy dose of what people refer to as “going outside.” But we’ve also long passed the grounds to say that social media isn’t real life, especially now that a pandemic has made so many of our activities virtual. Opting out of Instagram would mean opting out of a huge chunk of society, and for so long it felt like I had to either feel ignorant or feel bad.
Removing likes won’t fix everything. I will likely still, for instance, make sure I’m projecting the most curated, carefree version of myself. But at least I’ll be the one in charge of whether or not that matters.