Sked Social customer and marketing expert Nathan Murphy (founder of Quizbreaker and Just Melbourne) shares his thoughts on Instagram’s trial to remove the number of likes from feeds. If you follow the Instagram ecosystem even a little bit, then you’re probably aware of Instagram’s current experiment with removing the counter of likes next to each post in the feed. It looks like this: Credit: @instagram There is strong evidence that the social point scoring system within Instagram has been detrimental to the mental health of young people all over the world. Instagram described the changes: We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get. However, this is also a move that will make Instagram more money in the medium term. If users no longer fear getting a low number of ‘likes’ on their content, they will probably post more content and, therefore, spend more time on Instagram. That uptick in engagement will mean Instagram can serve more ads and, thus, make more money. The immediate reception by most people has been overwhelmingly positive, as it should be. Only a few influencers and agencies have cried out over the change – although for the account owner/holder, the number of Likes will still be visible, both in the feed and in the account’s Insights. The law of unintended consequences However, these kinds of broad & wide-reaching changes to a platform often have unintended consequences and one of those has almost immediately become apparent. The ‘likes counter’ was the easiest way to assess the authentic engagement of someone’s audience. It was the most effective disincentive against purchasing fake Instagram followers. In the last few days, I have noticed a handful of smaller businesses that I follow start ratcheting up a few thousand followers almost magically overnight. A quick scroll through their followers shows a majority of their new followers being accounts with only a couple of posts, only a few followers but following thousands of accounts themselves. These are undoubtedly fake followers that smaller Instagram accounts are purchasing to increase their perceived ‘social proof’. They know that by getting those follower numbers up they can look more ‘popular’ and go after more lucrative collaborations. Until now, if you purchased fake followers for your Instagram page, you tended to look a bit silly at best and downright dodgy at worst. Having 100,000+ followers and an average of 5 likes per post was a telltale sign of this Instagram crime having been committed. But now that’s gone. The challenge of doing diligence on influencers Whilst the top end of town has access to great analytical tools to measure authenticity & engagement, smaller businesses and smaller influencers have no such ability. Unless they manually go through the followers of an account, it’s impossible to tell the authenticity of an account’s audience. Brands should be even more careful than the past about ensuring that influencers they collaborate with have legitimate, engaged audiences that are relevant to your brand’s target market. Engagement rates were a limited measure to begin with, but it was always a better measure than simply the number of followers an account has. So what can we expect now? For starters, services that sell fake followers can expect to be very, very busy in the short to medium term. This, in turn, will probably spur on more accounts reaching out to businesses to collaborate based on a fake audience. All the while, users will be blissfully unaware as this happens in the background – lots of people will just mysteriously seem to have a much larger audience than they did recently. This is a long term problem and I’m very curious to see how Instagram will react. There are two obvious choices that I can see before them. Option 1: Remove the follower number altogether. This is extreme, no doubt, but the social pressure that folks feel about ‘likes’ will likely now just shift to be focused on their total number of followers. Option 2: Display some sort of engagement rating or score for accounts that can be easily checked by anyone. This should be an easy fix and an effective incentive that will encourage good behaviour. The second option is probably desperately needed if the platform wants to stop itself from becoming a sea of fake accounts and followers in the near future. The first option is drastic and I doubt it will happen. But then again I also never would have predicted Instagram removing the number of likes next to posts, so, who knows? Your move Instagram.