Google search screenshot

A screenshot of suggested Google searches for the phrase “Instragram makes me...” from November 2019. Results are based off of popular searches. 

What’s a good follower to following ratio? When is the best time of the day to post on Instagram? Selfies generally get more likes. What’s a good follower to like ratio on Instagram? Deleting posts that underperform.

On social media networks, value is quantifiable. The worth of a picture, a selfie, a meme found in metrics like followers, likes, comments, views.

Majority of social media networks put numbers front and center. And it’s on purpose. It’s good for business. The urge to check on how a post is doing drives users back to the site, increasing user engagement.

But these metrics have been brought into question for the effect it has on users’ mental health. Social media sites’ focus on quantity leads to continually measuring the value of social connections within metric terms.

This has led to sites like Instagram, a photo and video sharing social network, toying with the idea of private likes in the U.S. Instagram has already hidden likes on posts in Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. Users are still able to see likes on their personal accounts but not on other users’ accounts.

Head of Instrgram Adam Mosseri announced the decision to test private likes in an interview with Wired in November 2019, a week before its launch. Private like counts is a part of Instagram’s attempt at becoming a safer place on the Internet, along with honing down on offensive comments, bullying and enforcing community guidelines.

“It’s about young people. The idea is to depressurize Instagram,” Mosseri said in the announcement. “Make it less of a competition. Give people the space to connect with the people that they love, things that inspire them.”

Northwest senior Caitlyn Bland has been an Instagram user since her junior year of high school. She doesn't even remember why she got it but said it’s probably because everyone had it. It was the cool thing to do.

Since its launch Oct. 6, 2010, Instagram has turned into the sixth most popular social network worldwide — third in the U.S. — with over 1 billion active monthly users and over 500 million active daily story users.

In 2018, 37% of U.S. adults said they actively use Instagram. But, Instagram is more popular amongst 18-24 year-olds, with 75% using Instagram, according to the Pew Research Center.

Bland said over the years, she has used social media less and less. Partly because life got busy and she couldn’t dedicate the time anymore. But mostly because she noticed how much of her free time she was allowing social media to consume.

“I realized that I wasn’t getting enough real rest,” Bland said. “So I had to ask, ‘How can I help myself?’”

To help herself, Bland uninstalled Instagram from her phone. She kept Instagram uninstalled for about a month.

“There’s positives. There’s a lot of art accounts and motivational speakers that I follow that I feel like they post encouraging things,” Bland said. “That’s not causing me to have issues with negative self talk. There’s also negatives, so it’s trying to find a balance of use.”

In search of that balance, Bland has set restrictions for social media on her iPhone. She can’t access social platforms before 11 a.m. She has an hour and a half time limit set. Sometimes, though, when her hour and half of social media time is up for the day, Bland will hit “one more minute” or “15 more minutes,” similar to snoozing an alarm. But the time limit isn’t really the point. It’s being cognitive of where her screen time is spent, allowing more awareness around mindlessly scrolling.

“It’s an instinctual time filler. It’s like an addiction,” Bland said. “You’re so used to having your phone.”

A recent study found that limiting time on social media has significant impact on overall well-being. The study monitored 143 undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. The students were split into two groups — one to use social media per usual and the other to limit each social media platform to 10 minutes per day for four weeks.

“Not comparing my life to the lives of others had a much stronger impact than I expected, and I felt a lot more positive about myself during those weeks,” a participant in the 10-minute limit group study said. “I feel overall that social media is less important and I value it less than I did prior to the study.”

With Instagram comes the pressure to produce perfect pictures and curate an aesthetic feed. The platform intended to promote creative freedom and expression becomes less about social connection and more about social comparison, Bland said.

“You see your own problems and things you’re going through, and then you see everybody else’s best picture-perfect things, and you think that’s what their life consists of 24/7,” Bland said.

Before the idea of private likes became a conversation, artist and developer Benjamin Grosser created demetricated browser extensions for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, removing all numbers from the social media platforms. No like counts. No follower counts. No comment counts. No timestamps.

The presence of metrics on Instagram dominates how we think and act. The quantification of Instagram, admitted or not, is a measure by which we assess social worth and if our lives and friendships are valuable and fulfilling, Grosser said about his reasoning for building demetricated social media.

Study after study shows that numerical feedback influences how we think, how we act. It’s why teachers grade on a numerical scale of 0-100. It’s why speed display radars are more successful at slowing speed than the posted speed limit. Numerical feedback loops are an effective tool for changing behavior, Thomas Goetz wrote in a deep-dive of feedback loops.

“Provide people with information about their actions in real time, then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors,” Goetz said in the deep-dive article. “Action, information, reaction.”

It’s still too soon to definitively say whether or not demetricating social media, or implementing private likes across the board will make people feel better about using Instagram. But social media with the numbers looks more like a competition and less like socialization.

“It is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that reducing social media, which promised to help us connect with other, actually helps people feel less lonely and depressed,” lead researcher that monitored students use of social media at the University of Pennsylvania said of her findings.

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