Are Likes and Followers the Problem With Social Media?

What would a metric-free, or metric-light, social media actually feel like? It’s not so easy to imagine revisionist platform histories, given how integral metrics have been to the stories of their rapid rise and dominance. These omnipresent numbers have also served as imperfect but widely used ways quantify revolutions, jokes, screw-ups and presidencies. And their proprietary and borrowed names — shares, likes, follows, views — have infused our everyday speech.

In earlier incarnations, both Twitter and Instagram presented users with simple chronological feeds, and visible metrics also provided secondary sorting mechanics. These numbers — how many people liked something, or commented on something, or re-shared something, or followed someone — were a biased, ruthless and explicit value system. That these numbers were goals unto themselves was implied from the start.

Instagram without quantified likes might have been nicer, in some way. But it would not have produced the Instagram we know today, and certainly not the Instagram purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars, which became the Instagram of influencers, which is the Instagram of status anxiety, which is the Instagram of more than a billion users.

Looking forward, though, a nearly number-free social media is somewhat easier to visualize. If you primarily consume Instagram Stories, you’re already seeing one version of it. And today, what you see on Twitter and Instagram already depends on a mixture of signals — things you’ve liked in the past, how much time you’ve spent looking at a particular user’s content, whether you communicate privately with a given user and whether you have an affinity for some topic or another — not just chronology, likes or retweets. Those signals are all metrics too, of a sort, invisible to us but very much legible to the platforms themselves. Imagine a ticker in your Instagram app counting up the number of times you’ve scrolled, or tallying the number of times you’ve tapped, or counting up the seconds you’ve spent looking at an image. These already exist, somewhere, and may inform what you see every day. They’re just not for you to know.

Understood this way, the idea that metrics are the problem sounds an awful lot like these companies saying their users can no longer be trusted, not even with the scraps of actionable data they’ve been allowed to see for years. (It also doubles as a way to share the premise that there must be a healthy and highly monetizable way to use these services, and that the platforms can be trusted to figure out what it is.) These metrics have outlived their original purpose and been assigned new roles behind the scenes. (TikTok, a much newer app still in its early period of frantic growth, lavishes users with metrics and feedback, and it works. We haven’t changed; our apps have.)

Likes and retweets used to be translated into signals for people. Now they just provide signals for the machines. In the newer, less immediately comprehensible versions of our feeds, where what we see is chosen according to processes that we can only guess at, Twitter and Instagram suggest the existence of dozens of metrics that are hidden by default. If our feeds are already assembled based on cues from countless secret metrics, why not hide a couple more?