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Imagine life with no Likes

Of the 800-million users Instagram is said to have, one of them, let’s call her Linda, has 400, 000 followers and an average of 1 369 likes per post. She is in her early 20s and has been using the app since 2015, and prides herself on the effort she puts into the virtual representation of herself she has created. Like the typical Instagram user, at the heart of it she is in it for the likes.

For some time now, she has followed a detailed formula to ensure a bountiful harvest of likes and followers — a crafted aesthetic, catering for niche followers, attracting new followers and retaining them.

To make sure that her current, previous and pending posts sit next to one another in perfect thematic and chromatic harmony, she plans the pictures or videos (and their captions) in advance, in multiples of three. She consistently uses the same filter and presets from an external image-editing app to make sure that all her images have the same temperature and colour undertone.

She says research by other popular users shows that sticking to a niche helps to retain her followers. So, she keeps her subject matter within the confines of sex positivity, Pan-African literature, travel and socialising — but only with users she has befriended because they match her aesthetic and also have an impressive and loyal following, which she hopes to draw from.

The next step for ensuring retention is consistent engagement with her followers. This involves liking every comment and responding to as many as she can within her schedule.

“People want to feel appreciated for giving you attention, you know? I don’t want them thinking I’m ungrateful,” she explains in the fountain-filled courtyard of Tashas in Sandton City, while moving the items on the table to make a picture- perfect flat layout.

After using Instagram for two years, she grew tired of watching people around her “mushroom to Insta-leb status” because of their online presence. She didn’t know how to beat them, so she decided to join them. “I deleted everything, made my profile a public personal blog, unfollowed people who wouldn’t inspire me and started afresh.”

Once her planning is complete, she relays how she posts the pictures and videos onto her feed every two days, three times a week.

“I don’t think it’s weird. There’s nothing wrong with scheduling ahead. It makes my online experience fuss-free. All I have to do is select the next picture from the planned posts folder, copy and paste the caption from my notes app, and press share. And if I post every week more than once, I stay in my follower’s head. People online are fickle, so you have to keep them interested by always being there, sis.”

About 40 minutes into the interview, she decides to post a flat-lay picture of a bouquet of proteas, a bottle of gin and a bell hooks book on crisp white linen. The caption reads “Maintaining a balance”. Then she locks her phone and places it on the table with the screen face down.

After a few minutes of her eyes casually shooting from my face to her phone, she picks it up and checks the post’s response and hesitates before handing me her phone. “Seven likes in 23 minutes isn’t great. If I come back here in a few hours and the likes aren’t three digits, I might get rid of this.”

She assures me that this is standard procedure — if the response to a post isn’t as high as she would like it to be, it will either be deleted or archived. “I don’t know, hey. I have a rep to maintain. Who wants to see a post with only 11 likes? That was the old me and I don’t want to be associated with that anymore. I don’t have to. You can drag me all you want, sis, but I like likes. Especially because every now and then brands approach me and I get to make some money from using a product and posting about it. It’s lucrative on so many levels. If you were me you would like it too.”

Similar to the Nosedive episode of Black Mirror, in which likes determine an individual’s socioeconomic status, likes are becoming a currency to users like Linda. When she was about to complete her undergrad degree in architecture, she began receiving exponential attention online. The wave of brands that approached her resulted in her decision to put education on hold so she could give more time to her brand.

“Because of these allegedly evil likes I have a car, clothes on my back, food to eat and I get to travel. Nobody’s getting hurt.”

This suggests that her liking what she posts is secondary because her followers’ responses determine what stays and what goes. As such, they play the deciding role.

Linda insists that Instagram is no longer an outlet for people to capture candid “my” moments, meals and to reminisce among her peers. Instead, she doesn’t mind the idea of her Instagram account being a platform for people to yearn for, stalk her, take screenshots and “yaaaas queen” her carefully curated self with thousands of likes.

“I like it because every like feels like an applause. I like the gram because it’s where I go to gather myself. It’s therapeutic. It’s very controlled. Plus, numbers don’t lie. I must be doing something right if so many people are engaging with me.”

In a recent spate of otherwise worrying news about rapper Kanye West (one consistent red flag being that Make America Great Again hat), he got in touch with the people who run Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter to lobby against social media users knowing how many likes and followers they have. He believes that this metric is ruining people’s mental health. Studies have linked the value of followers and likes with envy, loneliness, narcissism, anxiety and depression.

Researchers say this stems from focusing on an online personality and neglecting the self to continue what they term the reward cycle. Whenever users get a like or a follower, a small dose of dopamine is released. The more they have, the more intoxicating it is. West calls it “seeking validation in the simulation”.

How would this work if it was implemented? How would the social platforms tell us? Would we get a message from Instagram one day spelling out the impending doom in our DMs:

“Dear Valued User, If you’re reading this, slight changes that may alter your user experience have been imposed. From now on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook will be a tool for users to showcase their creativity and express themselves without the vanity of metrics deciding their value. To do this, this app will no longer have options to like or comment on posts. In addition to this, the number of followers and people a user follows are no longer visible to all users. We hope this betters your experience.”

What would become of Linda and millions of us?

Before the announcement of the “new Instagram”, Linda was working on closing a deal with a lingerie brand, which would pay her handsomely for a set number of posts endorsing its products over two months. Unfortunately, the brand has since stopped partnering with users who only have a presence on Instagram because they can no longer gauge the user’s clout.

No longer having the opportunity to gain an income or esteem, Linda feels robbed of the identity she has created. “I felt like a sardine in a school of fish. I no longer
stood out. My following is what makes me stand out from the basics,” she says.

In a recent visit to Four Seasons Spa at the Westcliff, Linda recalls the trauma of management denying her the opportunity to receive a deep-tissue massage and facial in exchange for dedicating an entire day’s Instagram stories to the spa to increase their traffic. “The management just said, ‘no thank you’,” she recalls with teary eyes.

One by one, the people who were sponsoring Linda’s lifestyle began to withdraw from their agreements. Mercedes Benz took back their car, she lost her year long gym membership, H&M and Fashion Nova have stopped sponsoring her with clothes, Revlon no longer gives her makeup and the publishers haven’t been sending her books. And with all of that, the secure support system from other celebrated Instagrammers is M.I.A.

Linda shies away from talking about how she’s feeling without the virtual affirmation she has become accustomed to, jokingly saying that she can’t tend to emotions while “chasing cheques”.

The sure-fire tone and upward stance of her chin has been swapped for shy suggestions and a nervous smile, which suggests her confidence and convictions have been lost online.

“I no longer know if people care about my work so I don’t know what they want to see or hear. And, if I don’t know what information they want, I don’t know what information to give them,” she shrugs, after explaining why she has decided to give Instagram a break to chase other forms of validation such as modelling for television ads and finding a gig as a presenter on a popular television or radio show.

After boycotting Instagram, she has recently begun to use it again with a different approach. From a brief stalking, I notice a subtle difference between the carefully designed palette that existed before the ruling and the new way she uploads things online. “I no longer know if people care about my work,” she says. “And if they don’t care, no one will ever know, not even me.”

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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