Humans love to assign value to things: the price of a gallon of milk ($3.55), the merit of a movie (89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), the worth of an hour’s work ($15 minimum, in California). Some things are priceless—the look people give each other on their wedding day, or the memory of a great vacation—but on social media we assign those moments value anyway, quantified in “likes.” It costs nothing to double-tap a square image on your Instagram feed, but the action holds a currency nonetheless. The worthiness of a post or a video or even an entire profile, comes down to how many times it was seen and enjoyed.
Social media tycoons have been wringing their hands for years about the incentives their products create. Do likes lead young people to compare themselves to celebrities and their friends, in a way that damages their self-esteem? Do they encourage posts that skew more inflammatory, or more sexual, than people might otherwise make? Are they too easily manipulated by bot farms and coordinated campaigns? Many of the major platforms have tested out hiding or deemphasizing these metrics, yet they remain stubbornly ubiquitous in our digital lives.
Instagram chief Adam Mosseri is the latest exec to decide that it doesn’t make sense to ditch likes completely. People like to be liked. Not to mention, it props up a billion-dollar economy of influencers and brands. So after years of experiments with removing likes altogether, Instagram this week announced that it’ll leave the choice up to its users. Like counts will be visible by default, but people can opt out of seeing them on their feeds and their own photos if they want.
Here’s my recommendation: Hide your likes.
I first demetricated in 2019, months before Instagram announced its initial experiment. I used a jerry-rigged browser extension that hid the place where the metrics would go on both Instagram and Twitter. The experience was, frankly, disorienting. My eyes still automatically scanned for the number of likes as I scrolled through my feeds, as if searching for a price tag on items I wanted to buy. I posted to the main feed and then instinctively refreshed to check how it was received.
I found that I was constantly looking for the approval of others while interacting with posts. Ben Grosser, who developed the demetrification extension, told me at the time that this was normal: “We’ve become reliant on numbers, so we let them stand in for meaning more than they do.” With his browser extension, he suggested that I would start to lose my old habits. I had nothing to lose but the need to be liked.
Eventually, I did relax into this denumerated experience. Posting became less about what would earn the most likes, and more about sharing updates on my life with friends. Scrolling through Instagram became more like roaming an art museum: I lingered on the posts I liked, without wanting to check their sticker price. Grosser doesn’t make demetricators for the Twitter and Instagram apps, but I keep his extensions installed on my laptop to this day. In a world without value, I could finally be free.
Since I first experimented with demetrification, plenty has been said about how a need to be liked can distort our behavior online. In the documentary Fake Famous, journalist Nick Bilton artificially inflated the follower and like counts of three wanna-be influencers—and found that they became overwhelmed and absorbed with the quest to get more. These influencers knew their likes were fake; Bilton bought them from a bot farm to juice their engagement numbers. Even still, the illusion of being liked turned them into people unrecognizable by their real friends and family.
What, then, are the likes doing to the rest of us? Researchers are split on whether or not digital engagement affects mental health; the answer, as posited in one recent study, may simply be that it’s too soon to tell. But even still, chasing metrics can have impacts on what we post (or don’t) online. “When visible interface metrics are hidden, users realize how significantly their actions had been driven—almost automated—by the presence of the numbers,” says Grosser, who has studied demetrification for over a decade. People do stuff for the ‘gram, and not for themselves.