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New Delhi: “You can’t build your business thinking you’re going to run it on Instagram alone, unless you’re only thinking of the next six months.” Niki Seth is under no illusions about the capricious nature of social media.

“If one algorithm changes, you can’t be shutting shop right,” she says over the phone, certain in her confidence that “one way or the other, a business has to be able to stand on its own feet”.

Seth, now 25, started Manjha, an indie fashion label, in August, 2016, using the visually conducive, noise-free curation of Instagram’s platform to exclusively market her products. “But I already had experience with The Dressing Room, which was a page run in the golden years of Facebook — and no one really uses that except for news and birthday wishes anymore. So I knew, even with Manjha, Instagram’s one-stop-shop appeal wasn’t going to last too long.”

In a controversial new policy decision, the American photo-sharing service — now so much more than that — has started removing visible likes. This means, in simpler words, that you won’t be able to see how many likes someone else’s post has received; although you’ll still be able to see (privately) how many your own got.

The move, which is still in its testing stage, was first rolled out in Canada as early as May, and has since expanded to Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, with the highest number of Instagram users pegged at being comfortably over 100 million, users were hit with the sudden change as recently as November. It’s yet to hit India fully, although many users have already seen the change.

Instagram is the most popular kid on today’s social media playground. It’s all encompassing nature, shaded with a tinge of exclusivity (private profiles) allows it to blend Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Pinterest into one solitary mega-app. As of today, you can send text messages, videos, voice notes and pictures, create mood boards for #dailyinspo, shop directly through its retail feature, find a romantic partner, build a friend community, upload live updates (via stories), and push sponsored content through its advertising stream.

In this parallel socio-economic set-up, likes served an alternate currency of social validation — allowing businesses to gauge demand, and for influencers to outline the scope of their popularity.

“In the short run, I do think that it will affect smaller influencers like me from being commissioned for work by brands,” Archit Agarwal, a Delhi-based food-blogger and micro-influencer currently building on his 11k followers on Instagram, tells ThePrint.

“The Indian influencer marketing trend has been all about the number game — followers and likes,” he says, adding in the long term, however, he does believe it to be a good thing.

“It’s likely to lead to a positive shift where brands look deeper into an influencer before investing. This could be the tonality and aesthetics of their content, their demographics, and the kinds of comments they generate, rather than just a number without context.”

Marketing mental health

On their end, the social media behemoth has postured its decision as an attempt to ease some of the social-media induced anxiety and pressures that “are becoming more acute, particularly with young people, particularly in a mobile-first world,” as Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri explained at the recent Wired25 Summit.

For some influencers, including Sejal Kumar, the YouTube vlogger with 664k followers on Instagram, the no-likes move is a welcome decision. “It’s overall a pretty great thing,” she tells ThePrint, “because social comparison and competition has had a very detrimental impact on mental health. I talk about it on my posts as well.”

As a creative person, Sejal says, “it’s even better because now I can solely focus on my work.”

In October this year, at least 10 young, urban respondents ThePrint reached out to (on social media, by the way), spoke to us about how using apps like Instagram are akin to a sense “of getting sucked inside a vorte”.

“A seemingly endless reel of other people’s lives played out in front of you”, is how Delhi-based Jahanvi Kocchar, with a background in advertising, described it.

For Ankita Khanna, a clinical psychologist and art-based therapist at Children First, social media “allows us to create, and constantly strive to sustain, an alternate reality or image of ourselves and our lives”.


Also read: Brands are bypassing influencers and targeting Gen Z with memes


But the standards of this alternate reality aren’t set by us at all, but rather by “our (often biased) perceptions of other people’s constructed realities”, she explains.

“We look on these platforms for everything we wish to be, and are often not.”

 

Instagram’s decision to remove likes, then, seems to placate this increasing awareness that endless social comparison, facilitated and fuelled by technology, is making people unhappy.

Shortly before this policy shift, the platform also rolled back the Following tab on the app — which allowed you to see whose pictures your friends had liked. The feature led to calling partners out for ‘micro-cheating’, gossiping about potential romantic pairings and holding friends accountable for evidently being online after they had told you that they’d slept.

“I’m glad that’s over,” says Vrinda Pareek, a Delhi-based lawyer. “We were growing accustomed to unprecedented levels of access into each other’s lives — it’s normalised voyeurism really. Social media apps need to give us control over how much information we want out there.”

In emailed response to ThePrint, Instagram’s Public Policy and Community Outreach Manager in India Tara Bedi also pointed to other new features on the app that account for user privacy. “We’ve introduced features like ‘Restrict’ that help prevent unwanted interactions and deprecated the following tab,” Bedi said, in order to prioritise the “safety and well-being” of their users.

“Our community has the ability to create private accounts, choose whom theyallow to follow them and comment on their posts and Stories, and to create a ‘Close Friends’ list with whom to share more personal content with on Stories,” she added, further highlighting how a user is only able to see those messages that they choose to accept.

Now visible likes are also gone, but considering that users are still able to see how many likes their own posts are getting, the move only addresses half the problem.

“The idea is to depressurise Instagram,” Instagram CEO Mosseri said. “We’re trying to reduce anxiety, we’re trying to reduce social comparisons.”

A 2018 paper by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes found that when people receive likes or comments on social platforms their brains release the pleasure-giving chemical, dopamine. This means that the “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice-president of User Growth at Facebook, admitted last year that the organisation creates, still exist.

Some users also argue that one metric of social comparison will merely replace the other.

However, even just appearing to check half this toxic-addictive behaviour is “a great business decision”, Agarwal says.

“There has been a big drop in overall engagement on the platform and this helps retain the reputation of the platform,” he adds, qualifying that while “the whole mental health messaging is a great cover for this, I am sure that it’s not the only reason for this change”.

Content is king

Just last year, Instagram witnessed 3.7 million dollars worth of brand-sponsored posts from influencers.

Businesses across the product spectrum from Samsung and One Plus to Fab India and hipster coffee joints like Sleepy Owl and Blue Tokai are seeing the added benefits of tapping into a young, always-on-the-go market born in the era of Twitter and Instagram celebrity.

“Take model turned actor Luka Sabbat and his 1.7 million-ish Instagram followers,” WIRED’s Paris Martineau wrote in April this year.

“Last September, PR Consulting paid him $45,000 to wear Snap’s bulbous video-recording sunglasses, Spectacles, in Instagram posts and stories during Fashion Week. By the end of October, the PR firm filed suit against Sabbat, alleging, for one thing, that he shortchanged them by at least two posts.”

The world of advertising has changed, billboards and newspaper ads are fast giving way to subtle plugs on podcasts, #giveaways, product placements and brand collaborations, amid a wide variety of other innovative ways to sell but not be a sell-out to the current generation.

Blue Tokai posts a solitary post daily on its handle. “From what we know so far, we don’t foresee our social media strategy being affected so much since we have always paid more attention to engagement through personal messages and comments, rather than focusing on likes with little engagement,” Namrata Ashtana, Blue Tokai co-founder, tells ThePrint.

 

For Manjha’s Seth, “there’s really no correlation between likes and sales, and as a business, you’re mostly concerned about people buying your product, not liking it after a cursory glance or because they’re bandwagoning with a popular trend at a superficial level.”

As far as influencer-brand collaborations goes, Sejal Kumar tells me that “back-end data will always be available to the user and the brands, so they can still measure the reach of influencers on the platform.”

“Now content in king,” says Karan Dua, with 309k followers on Instagram. “Everyone’s at the same level, and newcomers are less likely to get dejected because their friends’ posts have already gone viral. Likes and quality content don’t always go hand-in-hand, but now we’re a step closer to user engagement beyond showing off your social capital.”


Also read: The web might be a monopolist’s best friend


 

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