Why Instagram hiding ‘likes’ could be the reset button the world needs

If Instagram goes through with hiding 'likes' it could compel marketers to focus on deeper, more relevant metrics and make social media great again – argues Wavemaker India chief content officer Karthik Nagarajan

In 2010, when Kevin Systrom was building an also-ran social check-in service called ‘Burbn’, he decided to take a break and travelled to a beach town in Mexico with his then-girlfriend Nicole.

It is here that Nicole – owner of the feet in the picture above and also a user of Burbn, complained about how she never posted pictures on the platform because she was embarrassed by their quality. This led to Systrom creating an online photo filter (XPro II) and taking the above picture the next day, and thereby pivoting Burbn to Instagram. The story was recounted by him to Guy Raz on the ‘How I Built This’ podcast on NPR.

Surely not the most inspiring backstory and definitely not a contender for an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. But it is a sublime moment in the social media history of the world where a raw human truth was discovered.

It helped Kevin understand the problem that he should be solving for – to create a platform that will help the user to ‘share something they love and ensure that they feel great sharing it’. It is this feeling that hundreds of millions of users have rediscovered, every time they posted on Instagram, ever since.

Somewhere along the line, it became something else. In 2007, a social media aggregator called ‘Friendfeed’, created a solution for content discovery across social platforms and that involved the invention of the ‘like’ button. And boy, did it take off.

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom

The ‘like’ button addressed the most primal vanity among humans – the sense of reaffirmation that they are ok, or actually not just okay but great. And this gamification worked wonders for engagement and also made extraordinary creators out of regular users, as each one strived to outdo the other.

If history has taught us anything, it is that the decision on which features stay and go on social platforms, is only dictated by business continuity and not necessarily the larger good.

And after a little more than a decade, we are now at a stage where the nuisance value of the ‘like’ button far outweighs its business value. It is making platforms toxic and less fun, to a point where at least three of the top five social networks (Twitter, Pinterest and now Instagram) have spoken about doing away with the ‘like’ button entirely, in just the last six months.

The impact of this to brands might seem disastrous in the short term. All the social media measurement frameworks that have been built meticulously will have to be redrawn, all the KPIs of brand managers will have to be rewritten and many of the shining dashboard screens across offices might have to be switched off, albeit briefly.

Because in the long term, brands will gain immensely if this were to actually happen. Especially in these three ways:

The means has been an end for way too long

That engagement has been a KPI for campaigns is by itself justifiable as it is the only quantitative metric that social platforms ever made available to brands. However, the fact that ‘likes’ are the only metric in many campaigns that we see around us is plain absurd. The disappearance of the ‘like’ button will push businesses to go back to hard metrics like volume of conversations or brand lift

Reclaiming the golden goose of advocacy

One of the pillars of social media marketing that ‘likes’ have almost destroyed over the years, is advocacy. This romantic notion that someone who is not your family or who you might have never even met can actually influence your purchase decision, used to be a reality.

However, the pace at which we used engagement as one of the metrics to identify those influencers and brought it to a point where ‘influencing’ became a viable, full time profession, is when we nearly killed the market.

Today, while followers have grown exponentially for these influencers, their power to actually inspire purchase decisions has progressively decreased. Their followers are often blind-sided by overuse of branded content

Making measurement great again

The code of the impact of social media and content on a purchase journey is yet to be cracked universally. While it sounds like a critical enough problem to solve, marketers are not exactly losing sleep over it as life seems to go on fine. While it wasn’t absolutely necessary, the disappearance of some of these engagement metrics will help put the focus back on creating business- impacting metrics.

But mostly I am excited about just putting ‘social’ back into ‘social media’. Even though it is not yet a reality, the fact that platforms like Instagram are thinking about ‘reducing’ the pressure on the user, gives me a lot of hope that we are going back to the basics.

Even though Kevin is no more part of Instagram, maybe this move will take us closer to his moment of truth with Nicole on that Mexican beach in 2010, when he realised he needed to help Nicole ‘share something she loves and makes sure she feels great sharing it’. That will be good for her, for the billion users on Instagram, for the world we live in and by extension of it all, for brands.

Karthik Nagarajan is chief content officer at Wavemaker India. He is based in New Delhi, India


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