Are Instagram likes worthless?

An experiment by Sammy Bovitz

I really do not like Instagram. I find its addiction loop and the way it twists people towards a new and lower form of communication awful. Sure, there are apps that are worse in this way (see: Snapchat and TikTok), but Instagram succeeds on a larger scale by pulling from everywhere while seeming more inclusive than the more Gen Z-driven apps. Its Facebook-derivative posting, the “Reels” it ripped straight from TikTok, and a direct messaging system that takes cues from Snapchat provides an odd blend of features that appeals to nearly everyone. But the way I see people using Instagram goes beyond frustration– it makes me sad. 

People relentlessly ask for likes and comments and saves and follows and any form of what is ultimately empty validation. Some people that seem like the happiest, most attractive people on the app are likely to be eaten alive by their own self-doubt and lack of self-worth, because Instagram uses metrics that try to quantify how popular you are. Likes, comments, followers, likes of your comments, replies to your comments, number of direct messages, and views of your story are all tracked and available for you to see. This creates a feedback loop of small bits of dopamine traded for a massive amount of anxiety about your body or your skills as a photographer or how many friends you have. It’s why I deleted Instagram from my phone in September. And yet, I still found myself checking direct messages or posts from time to time on my computer because there was a small percentage of posts or messages out there that I actually enjoyed seeing or reading, worthwhile stuff that I couldn’t really see anywhere else buried under meaninglessness. But when I reinstalled the app in January, I took a look at how dominant the “Reels,” shop, and search pages were and deleted it after 3 minutes.  

A month later, that little return to the app was still bothering me. So, I came up with an idea for an experiment, and after about 15 minutes, decided to do it. I was going to start taking pictures of no value with some things that people just scrolling through will like and move on with their day. No overly long captions, no promotions, no need to really comment, just things people can like and move on with. That’s the thing about the app– some people just double-tap for half an hour a day as a matter of routine. I couldn’t exploit attractiveness in order to gain extra likes or comments (just ask my highly nonexistent girlfriend!), so I instead reposted the day’s post on my story with attention-grabbing emoji and hope for a secondary stream of mindless likes from that. I told myself I would post daily for 5 days and write dumb captions to have at least a little fun while doing so. From there, I’d hope to boost my comment count by relying on some friends that would hopefully realize what was happening and reply to each one, incentivizing repeat likes and comments on future posts. 

As a baseline for this experiment, I used my post promoting my Black Student Union roundtable on this paper back in June. It was probably one of the most fulfilling conversations I had in 2020 and helped me retain perspective as I tried to figure out how I could contribute to social change and how my peers at school thought those who have privilege should go about things. 52 likes, 3 comments. On February 22nd, I started my experiment.  

This first day was really telling in terms of how funny yet how sad the results were in the 24 hours after the selfie I took without turning the camera to selfie mode. By the time the next day rolled around, I had already gotten 71 likes, 130 story views, and 5 unique comments, performing a lot better than a thoughtful conversation on a timely issue. This could signal things about how people choose to portray their activism on social media, but that’s a discussion for another day. Though it was a fresh post after 8 months without one on Instagram, my theory about mindless likes looked to somewhat be there. All I had to do was make slight tweaks and take similar photographs of nothingness with short captions and I thought I would be okay. 

The next day I made sure to tag LeBron James and promise daily content with a picture I captured by throwing my phone onto a couch. I did expect slightly diminished returns and I got them, receiving 54 likes and 115 story views, though I did get 6 unique comments this time rather than 5. Still, this was a pretty large interaction, with the majority of the likes and comments coming in the first few hours. 

Day three came with a 2-second video of the floor as I walked. While 7 different people commented within the first hour, the post wasn’t as successful as the first two days– likely due to the fact that some prefer to watch the video before hitting the like button. Still, it approached and matched that original 52 likes at a healthy pace, plus got a few more that evening to hit 55. 

The fourth day came with a popular meme template without anything filling it in. It hit 50 likes a little quicker than the previous day, and finished the day with a quite solid 58 likes. 6 unique commenters also weighed in before the day was done. 

The fifth and final day was a blurry picture vaguely related to Marvel Studios’ megahit WandaVision. 7 unique commenters entered the fray in the first few hours, though that could’ve been because of my call to action to comment “lol SPOILERS” out of sheer boredom. That aside, the final post finished with 54 likes. Every single post that I sent out that week with literally zero substance was deemed better than my roundtable with the Black Student Union. Somehow, in my quest to get mindless likes, I succeeded: my posts added up to 294 likes over 5 days.

I don’t know if this is “impressive,” nor do I really care about how this performed relative to an influencer. I have a private Instagram account and I’m not necessarily popular or attractive. But why should I care? Why should you care? Social media sites can be a way where people can genuinely express themselves, find connections, or just share photos they took or works of art they created. In theory, apps like Instagram should be amazing. But with posts that the current culture encourages, that’s not happening right now.

There are exceptions, sure, with plenty of people just posting whatever they want. But every time I see the acronym for “like my recent,” I get upset. Who cares how many people like your post or comment or message you directly or follow you on TikTok or subscribe to your YouTube channel or anything? Sure, it’s possible things like YouTube subscriptions could be important in a future career, but that is years down the line, and most jobs do not rely on social media relevance.

I’m not telling you to delete every social media app you have. In this time, that might not be possible for a teen that wants to be social. But please stop using likes and comments as a barometer for how much people actually like you as a human being. The only time I’ve truly enjoyed social media is when it actually simulates real human interaction, but that’s rare. No matter how many times you get a follow back, or a comment from a person you barely know about how attractive you are, or open up your phone to ten direct messages, it won’t ever come close to having real interactions with real friends in real life. If I can get 300 likes from doing absolutely nothing but getting mindless clicks and having a few friends in on a joke, who cares how many followers you have? At the end of the day, the people that truly care about you won’t have to comment “so pretty” to let you know that you’re beautiful. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Noah says:

    Awesome article!!! So relevant and eerily accurate!

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