The decision by social networking site Instagram to experiment with a feature that hides the number of ‘likes’ on posts and also keeps private the count of people who have watched a video has triggered debate on the race for popularity on social networks.
In what may eventually see a change of the site as we know it, an announcement made this week by Instagram’s parent company Facebook stated that the provisional feature will be applicable in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand.
The BBC reports that the new feature has been applying to Canadian users since May.
Ms Mia Garlick, the Facebook director of policy in Australia and New Zealand, told the BBC that Instagram expects to have relaxed users as a result of the modification.
“We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive so that you can focus on sharing the things you love,” she said.
In the countries affected by the test phase, an Instagram user can click on a button to see how many people have “liked” his or her post and who they are, but that information is not visible to other users.
“We’re looking forward to learning more about how this change might benefit everyone’s experience on Instagram,” stated Facebook.
Ms Garlick said the goal is to ensure users feel less judged and for Instagram to see “whether this change can help people focus less on likes and more on telling their story”.
As more smartphones land in the hands of Kenyans, the image-sharing social media site is fast-becoming the go-to platform for those who love to share bits of their lives in photos and videos.
Other social media sites popular in Kenya that rely on “likes” and comments are Facebook and Twitter.
The likes are usually in the form of a thumbs up or love button and emojis (images used in electronic messages). Some influential users who have monetised their social media accounts use rely on such statistics to get clients and account for the online work assigned.
The reception of such posts — usually by “likes”, video views and comments — has a considerable impact on a person’s well-being.
In fact, a 2017 study on 1,479 young people by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health revealed that Instagram may be fuelling a mental health crisis with its features.
Mr Fabio Ogachi, a lecturer at the psychology department of Kenyatta University, did a related study in Kenya in 2015.
He sampled 400 university students while out to observe whether the ever-widening internet access in Kenya was brewing depression.
“The findings revealed a prevalence of 16.8 per cent of pathological internet use and a prevalence of 23.6 per cent of depression,” stated Mr Ogachi in the report titled Relationship between Depression and Pathological Internet Use among University Students in Kenya.
In an interview with the Nation on Saturday, Mr Ogachi welcomed Instagram’s experimental feature, saying it can help address the “addiction” that is emerging.
“I think, in a way, it will remove the pressure not only on the person who is posting but also on the followers to ‘like,” he said.
He was, however, of the opinion that Instagram should do away with the “likes” feature altogether; that it should not be accessible even to the individual user.
“The fact that you’re able to see them yourself also has that effect, but not as much as when you see it and know that other people are also seeing how many times this has been ‘liked,’” Mr Ogachi said.
“I’d say if it is done away with, the better. But I’m not sure whether they would want to do that because that is their business model,” argued the psychologist.
Also welcoming the experimental feature is Twitter influencer Dennis Owino, better known as “Kinyanboy” on the platform.
“I’m fully supportive of Instagram taking such a risky step and experiment, given the fact that this is the third most popular social media network after WhatsApp and Facebook in Kenya,” Mr Owino said on Saturday.
“For some time now, Instagram has been used as a tool for validation in the sense that those with less interactions (likes) are viewed as less attractive since this a solely visuals-based app. This has dealt a big blow on many users’ self-esteem. I’m certain this not what they envisioned but what it has become,” added Mr Owino.
Talking of self-esteem, Mr Ogachi advised Kenyans to wean themselves off the pursuit of validation from social media.
“As human beings, our nature is that we need to have relationships with real people. But social media is now substituting that genuine relationship and feedback from real people. Kenyans are now getting it from random people and because it gives you that high, you keep doing it. You end up living a fake life,” he said.
While many were in agreement with Instagram’s experimental feature, not everyone applauded the move, as witnessed in comments under the post announcing it.
“This is ridiculous! I’m not an influencer but I enjoy seeing how many likes others get for their great photo posts,” posted Sandimichelle.
“I suggest Instagram have an ‘opt out’ for anyone who gets upset about likes and leave other influencers alone.”