Why is Instagram removing likes? Perceptions of users and brands


The foundations of social media are user-generated content, connectivity, and participation. “Likes” represent the possibility of expressing one’s opinion about content, and of giving instantaneous feedback to other users. They are a way of measuring two fundamental features of these platforms: the quality of the user-generated content and the social capital of the users’ networks. On the contrary, the lack of “likes” is interpreted as poor quality, interest or relevance of the content created, and as a weak sense of belonging to the community, resulting in loneliness, exclusion and isolation. Users increasingly tailor their content aiming to get the highest amount of “likes” possible, to become influencers, and experience anxiety and depression if the desired feedback is not achieved.

In 2017, Facebook acknowledged that “like” and “dislike” were too limited options to express the users’ emotions and reactions, and added other possibilities. In 2019, it was Instagram’s turn to reflect about the importance of “likes”, deciding to test the removal of its quantification of the platform. This decision has profound implications for influencers and brands, who have been building relationships and communities based on such metrics. After a trial period in Brazil, Instagram states that it “decreased the anxiety of users”, and is expanding this novelty to other countries, including Portugal. Although this change is communicated by the platform as a way if caring about the well-being of its users, there are monetization strategies behind it, as “likes” are still counted in paid confidential reports.

This communication presents results from an exploratory study about the impact of “like deprivation” for Portuguese Instagrammers, relying on an online survey to a purposive sample of 500 users of this platform, addressing their perceptions about the impact of this change on the content production, on the social capital of the platform, and on their relationship with brands and influencers. Thus, we complemented the perspective of users with in-depth interviews to 5 other relevant agents, namely Instagram influencers, marketing agencies and brands with relevant presence on Instagram.

Our preliminary findings reveal that users relied heavily on the number of likes as a way of assessing the quality of content and helping them select and focus their attention. Also, the number of likes was proportional to the gratification associated to publishing content, and it was a way of “getting the pulse” of the community, and understanding which kind of content was preferred. Users feel “adrift” without the quantification of likes, although they recognize that a low number of likes could cause frustration, sadness and even embarrassment. According to influencers, marketers and brands, this is a monetization strategy from the platform. Most of them have agreed to pay for detailed reports, as they consider the quantification of likes an essential indicator for measuring the effectiveness of their influence marketing. They believe that, with time, users will find other references and adopt different practices, but for now they will keep the same strategy and pay for access to metrics.