Instagram recently announced plans to trial a total removal of the like function, to safeguard youth from the pressures of competing over social media stats. Clearly, in the digital age of perpetual clicking, scrolling – and above all, liking – the western world has become obsessed with external validation. In fact, one recent study discovered that each time we receive a new like, the dopamine rush in our brains feels similar to a gambling win or a hit of cocaine. Yet, beyond that temporary ego boost, how much value do likes truly have?
In an increasingly competitive, rivalry-fuelled world, the ones who receive the most likes might actually be benefitting simply because no-one sees them as a threat to the hierarchy. It feels safer, surely, to like someone who will never be a competent rival. On the other hand, those who lack likes or attract trolls often simply have something that sets them
apart from the crowd. Could it be that exactly the same attributes that inspire peer dislike are also indicators of future success? In other words, could it even be a good thing not to be liked?
During Dancing On Ice there was a flurry of support for the hapless Gemma Collins, who had never trained in dance at all. She boasted that she was “better than Beyoncé”, then fell flat on her face on live TV. Judge Jason Gardiner claimed she was lazy, and argued that society was “celebrating mediocrity” by supporting her. Yet when she appeared on Instagram to complain of being bullied by him, the post received over 52,000 likes, while there were others she had made in the same month which received less than 7,000.
Some of the most statistically popular magazines in Britain are those that focus on real-life stories of adversity and hardship. A psychological theory behind the public’s appetite for ‘schadenfreude’ is that they can compare themselves favourably to those who have suffered misfortune and feel superior and more positive about their own lives in comparison. The Jeremy Kyle show was watched by millions for similar reasons. Hitting the ‘like’ button is not as simple an act of affirmation as we might have been led to believe.
Of course likes and shares are essential for businesses and influencers, but when it comes to other social media interactions – such as with politicians or peers – personal biases often cloud the real reason for the support. This is also true when people engage in strategic voting – supporting an unpopular party to lift them up to average in order to push out other (disliked) contenders who have a realistic chance of winning. Could huge numbers of likes sometimes simply mean that a person is mediocre enough not to be competition to anyone? If so, perhaps there’s no need for social media sites to ban stats, because – dirty voting aside – those who can cope with not being liked might be the ones that succeed in the end.