Instagram can’t make up its mind about influencers. It’s in the company’s best interest for users to keep sharing content on the app, but it’s unclear whether the rising tide of influencers benefits them, too. In some sense, Instagram is competing with influencers for advertisers, who are eager to spend money on whatever commands the most eyeballs, whether that’s a sponcon deal with a food blogger or a regular-ass ad tucked between Instagram Stories.
According to Fast Company, Instagram is testing a feature that would fundamentally hurt influencers’ ability to do their jobs by hiding the number of “likes” a photo receives. Users would still be able to monitor the number of likes accrued by their own photos, but the metric would be hidden from outsiders. For now, the feature is speculative—but its very existence speaks to the tension between Instagram’s vision, and the users who bring their cachet to the platform.
If you’re an influencer whose livelihood comes from selling a quantified notion of your popularity to sponsors, your job becomes infinitely harder without a public measure of that popularity. With this test, Fast Company muses, Instagram may be gently telling influencers to log off. (The feature, first uncovered by computer scientist Jane Manchun Wong, reportedly says “We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get.”)
But whether you find it sketchy or not, by directly monetizing the platform, influencers have been key to Instagram’s success. The influencer marketing economy is worth more than $1 billion by some estimates, and could double by 2020. Instagram, at times, has aided the glow-up of influencers, by developing features to shop without every leaving the app—but other times, it has made the big business of being an influencer harder. Ultimately, Instagram is sending their super-users mixed messages: The company continues to need them to grow, but it’s willing to make life harder for them in the meantime.
This isn’t the first time a social media company has hinted that it might eliminate the like. (Twitter, too, has toyed with the idea of getting rid of likes). What makes this latest Instagram test important is that it shows the company’s reticence to admit that influencers are, at this point, a part of the app’s design. Instagram can’t decide who its for; meanwhile, everyone who spends time on these apps is getting depressed. Should influencers unionize? I’m exhausted.