Instagram: Should you be ‘liking’ more?

What’s in a like?
Do you hit ‘like’ on every post you see, or does a like = LOVE to you, to be saved for the really special posts on your feed? Or are you more of a passive Instagrammer, preferring to browse and read unseen?There’s no right or wrong way to do it – and no judgement on anyone’s personal habits. But i reckon it’s an interesting question to dig a little deeper into right now.

Not much surprises me in the Instagram world, but when I posed this same question in my stories a little while back, the results were not quite what I’d have guessed. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for some time now that folks were being a lot more careful with the old double-tap than in previous years, but I’d never have predicted that the majority of us were actively holding back.
I mean – purely from a selfish perspective, we all knows likes are great for account growth, right? That’s why people pay for bots to do it for them! Likes = return engagement = growth!

So what gives?

The explanations in my inbox were varied, but themed. Mainly they fell under the category of passive engagement or “laziness” (their word, not mine!), morality (“I don’t like posts that show meat“, “I don’t want to encourage more mediocre content“, “I don’t like obvious sponsored content“) and quality (“it needed more editing”, “it didn’t move me”, “I found it just ok”). And of course, the poll itself told us that most users were looking to be ‘wowed’, suggesting that some pictures just aren’t eye-catching or thumb-stopping enough, in the big IG swirl of content.

Some were also worried about the algorithm, and being shown too much similar content if they hit like, or of inadvertently programming it to show them too much of one thing.

There were also a small but vociferous minority of people getting in touch to say that they do the opposite – that if they follow someone, they’ll pretty much always like their posts, as much as they can. And I actually count myself amongst that crowd. Let me tell you about why.

Why I like a lot

  • Mostly, because I genuinely like those posts! If I’ve chosen to follow someone (and remember, I was asking specifically about timeline posts here), it’s usually because I really like their work. I’m following because I want to see more. Therefore, when Instagram shows me that work, I am happy to see it. I hit like to let them know that, and to let the algorithm know that it’s doing a good job.
  • To encourage. We all know that nagging feeling when a lost underperformance or gets fewer likes. It sucks. I’ve seen it lead to self doubt and people truly coming to dislike their own brilliance, outsourcing their self belief to the insta gods. If I follow someone, I have a feeling of connection to them (or their business/work/world), and want to see them continue. So, even if I see a post that doesn’t hugely resonate with me at that moment, I’ll hit like regardless. Because it meant something to them, because they took the time and trouble to share it. It’s a free, nanosecond way to help make someone’s day – and business – a little better.
  • It helps me. Remember what I said about bots? The more you like, engage and comment, the faster you’ll grow. Always. Instagram is a social network, and social networks reward engagement. 
    Of course, commenting is always going to be more meaningful and powerful, but it takes time and attention in a way that liking does not. I can scroll and like one-handed whilst listening to a podcast, and still make contact with new people, or old friends. When you like, you appear on someone’s notifications, an action that’s all buried somewhere in the depths of the Instagram database. Like someone’s posts consistently and your name becomes a familiar feature, perhaps crops up on suggestions, and you become a part of their world.  At the very least, most people get curious and come by to return the like-favour!
  • They’re free. They take no time. They don’t affect my status in any way. Community over competition, right? Likes are the lifeblood of our social network on Instagram, and just like high consumer spending boosts the economy, lots of likes flowing through means there’s enough growth and engagement for everyone.

Now, that’s not to say that the other users’ reasons aren’t valid and good. Of course we shouldn’t be leaving ‘empty’ likes and hitting the heart on content we really don’t genuinely enjoy – but, the second poll shows that people’s reason for skipping is rarely that they actively dislike a post. 

I mean, it’s called ‘like’, not adore, isn’t it? We have ‘save’ and ‘comment’ for those things, or the option of sending to a friend. A like is the bare minimum we can give someone to say thank you for their time and the content they created, usually for free. I’m happy to give that away, if it means they keep sharing. I’ve nothing to lose by doing so.

Reduced engagement

Anyone who’s seen a drop in engagement or found growth harder or slower in the last year or two has been quick to blame ‘the algorithm’. It’s demonised in some corners of the internet, seen as a malevolent force working to suppress the work of poor, honest instagrammers, and steal views and likes from those who would otherwise have got them.
But what if that isn’t the case? What if the reality is that our instagram economy is simply in recession – too few people ‘spending’, and too many ‘products’ for sale? That sounds ridiculous, when the currency is free like likes, and yet if people aren’t using them liberally, then it’s entirely possible.
Of course, that’s not the only factor here. The bar for great imagery has been raised and keeps on climbing, and that’s a great influence for those of us striving to improve and create better and better content to out out there. But Instagram is not a truly democratic platform, and just as clickbait titles tend to influence which headlines get the most views on news sites these days, so we see images with ‘click appeal’ rise to the top in the image world.

The perfection trap

Which leads to one a possible more dangerous issue overall.
Because as much as our eyes and brains love all that picture-perfect imagery, our hearts don’t always agree.

25%, which isn’t too huge in the scheme of things – and yet my inbox was flooded for several days.

For a lot of people, the high standards and glossy magic of the current Instagram zeitgeist make it feel scary, alienating & tough. They want to join in with the community but feel judged by their followers with every post. They’d like to feel more connected & less alone, but find even their favourite images don’t stand up to scrutiny against the new insta norm.

And we’re sort of to blame for this – all of us who have made the algorithm-friendly content, who’ve reserved likes for the most outstanding images, who have put the organisation of our home feed above the support we can offer to others.

And we can fix it, too.

A challenge

It is of course fine if you disagree with me.  However, if all this has got you thinking – and especially if you’re one of the many many people who is struggling to get the traction and growth on their account that they’d like – I’d love you to join an experiment with me.

Each day this week, make a concerted effort to hit like on all the posts that you see and truly like. In fact, go the extra mile and seek out content you know you will like, under favourite hashtags or on favourite accounts, or accounts your friends follow. Set a 10 minute timer if it helps (you don’t want to go overboard and trigger the anti-spam filter!) and go sprinkle love like a toddler in a flower girl dress. (You can do this one-handed, just by double tapping as you scroll, and it’s generally acceptable etiquette to like even if you’ve not read the comment.)

Meanwhile, keep a close watch on your engagement. If you have stats, monitor reach and impressions too. Watch your home feed and see if it gets any weirder, or better or changes at all. Same for Explore – more relevent? Less?

Like any good experiment, I can’t promise what will happen – but my prediction is this:

You’ll feel nice
Other people will feel nice
You’ll see lots of nice pictures.
And doesn’t that sound… well… nice?

All this week I’m sharing answers to my most frequently asked Instagram questions over on my page, @me_and_orla. If you like insights like this scroll down & subscribe to my newsletter to get monthly hashtags, podcast updates and news of classes & more.