Does the ‘Like’ Mean Anything Anymore?

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Laura Hajek, a musician and actor better known as Edith Pop to her nearly 20,000 Instagram followers, has tried everything to get more likes on her posts over the last four years. She’s re-timed her posts after reading about what hours are best to publish photos. She’s studied how filters affect likes. (The Mayfair filter seems to garner more.) She’s put popular hashtags on photos (#brooklyn and #music). At one point, she even paid for an app that encourages users to like one another’s images.

But in the past year or so, she’s found herself putting less effort into bolstering ‘likes,’ after seeing a major shift in what she calls the “‘like’ exchange rate.” Many users, especially younger fans of hers, scroll through their feeds liking nearly every post. With many people handing out likes indiscriminately, or in hopes of receiving likes back, she has seen more engagement but it doesn’t feel genuine. “The value of a ‘like’ is definitely decreasing — there is less thought involved,” she said. “Nowadays, a ‘like’ says more ‘information received’ or ‘I saw this’ than ‘I like this.’ I’ve been getting more likes on Instagram, but it just seems like the pool of people is larger and they are liking posts more, not that they actually like me or my work.”

For years, the “like” (or, in some places, the “fav”) has been the basic unit of currency on social media: the easy, universal measure of a post or poster’s quality, popularity, and power. But its dominant position atop the default methods of engagement in social media is increasingly challenged, as Facebook expands its array of reactions and the market becomes flooded with spammers and scammers. The like doesn’t mean what it used to — not just to people looking for easy validation, but to brands and companies looking for popular, high-engagement accounts.

Look no further than the comments on the Instagram account of any member of the Kardashian clan, particularly the Jenner sisters, to witness rampant like inflation in action. There, hundreds of thousands of users — mostly teens — take part in a fast-paced trade system meant to increase the number of likes on their photos and videos. Countless “lb” (like back), “first,” and “row for row” comments outpace genuine feedback on the photos, marking social media contracts promising to like a user’s photo or first row of photos in exchange for likes on posts of their own.

This concept isn’t new — it dates back to the days of Myspace, when users would leave “pic4pic” comments to artificially boost engagement. But today, the systemic “lbs” carried out on a mass scale by teens and paid bots that, for as little is $1, will “like” thousands of posts, have driven the value of a single like down to near irrelevancy.

“The demand for these accounts, coupled with the relative ease of creating them, have created a large underground market for fake accounts, fake followers, and fake likes,” Patrick Murray, vice president of products at DataVisor, a company that tracks bots like these, told me by email. “These cyber attackers have become increasingly hard to distinguish from legitimate users.”

Companies that advertise on Instagram seem to be finding ways around fake likes and followers — and with some bloggers making $5,000 to $10,000 just to mention a brand in a post, it’s in sponsors’ best interest to ensure their followers and likes are legit. Alexandra Tweten, the woman behind popular Instagram account @ByeFelipe said follower count and likes per post are good indicators of a popular account, but not the only metrics brands look at now.

“A lot of sponsors look at followers, but they are starting to look more at engagement as well, like how many genuine comments you get,” she said.

Tweten has also found sponsors are avoiding relying on likes and followers as engagement metrics altogether, shifting to a revenue-share model in which users get paid for the number of people who actually sign up for the product through the account. (Tweten’s account, which chronicles the rude and threatening messages women get after rejecting men on dating apps, has nearly 400,000 followers, but gets half the likes on posts as do popular fashion bloggers with similar followings.)

And if brands can no longer count on likes as indicators of true engagement, you can bet the metric has long fallen out of favor with the true arbiters of What Is Cool on the internet: teens. As a recent episode of This American Life chronicling the labyrinthian social norms of teen girls on Instagram showed, many young Instagram users mindlessly ‘like’ every post in their feed, giving no thought to whether they actually like it. With this in mind, according to my sister, a Very Cool Teen, teens are coming up with their own ways to determine what matters on Instagram.

“Likes aren’t dead yet, but it’s more about ratios now,” she told me. “The like-to-minute ratio is a big thing, like, if you posted a picture five minutes ago and you already have 60 likes people will comment ‘whoa, that ratio!’ Like-to-follower ratio is also huge. If you have 600 likes and only 1,000 followers it shows how many real followers you have.”

Many teens will send a group text to their closest friends before posting a photo on Instagram or immediately after it’s up alerting them all to like it (“peep the insta” is a common request). However, practices like these may not stick around for long, as Instagram is following Facebook’s lead and switching to an algorithmic feed, which will prioritize the accounts users interact with the most. Soon, you may automatically see your closest friends’ posts at the top of your feed.

This announcement came to the dismay of hundreds of thousands of artists who came together to demand it remain chronological, arguing smaller users will be hurt when their posts are pushed out of the top feed. Like Facebook users manipulating the newly changed algorithm for traffic, Laura Hajek now worries she will have to find a new way to trick the app into making her posts more visible and continue to promote her content.

“I wonder how it’s going to work when you post something new, how much time do they give you to get your like count up before they hide your photo forever?” she said.