Since 2007 when the social media site Facebook was launched, people’s lives have been changing in major ways, including the ways that they communicate, hang out and even mark major events in their lives. Things took a more public detour in the Arab region in 2011 when people discovered that the platform could be used to coordinate protests, eventually helping to give rise to a wave of revolutions.
Since then, social media platforms have not always been used responsibly, and as a result many have started to institute policies to remind users of their responsibilities. Instagram has decided to hide likes and followers on its platform, a policy that started in Canada in 2019 and that has now spread to countries including the US, Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand. The reason is that some people may be literally dying as a result of their desire to become famous on social media.
“Is a life worth a photo” was a question posted on an Instagram account shared by a young couple named Vishnu and Meenakshi Moorthy, two software engineers and travel bloggers from India who had been living and working in the US. The post showed a picture of Moorthy, taken by her husband Vishnu, sitting on the edge of a rock over the Grand Canyon in the US with this caption.
Later that same year, both were killed in an 800-foot fall at a national park in the US, an accident that occurred while they were on the edge of a cliff probably taking pictures for Instagram. The Moorthys’ lives ended tragically. But their story is part of a growing and dangerous trend in the global contest for social media fame.
Instagram can also affect other lives in just as dramatic ways. One 16-year-old girl in the US allegedly took her own life after asking her Instagram followers to vote on whether she should live or die. The girl ran an Instagram poll with the question “really important, help me choose D/L” hours before her death. Investigations said that those who had voted for the girl to die could be guilty of abetting her suicide. According to reports, 69 per cent of the girl’s followers had voted death. This was another death that can be put down in part to the mania of social media.
“I think Instagram is doing a good job in hiding its interactions button, and I hope it applies the same policy in Egypt soon,” said Ihab Youssef, a psychotherapist in Cairo. “People by nature crave approval, and social platforms, being open spaces without personal boundaries, do not provide acceptance and more often provide rejections,” he commented.
“But with such great freedom comes great responsibility and being capable of interacting in a digital world means knowing how to respect others and their personal boundaries. It means having the mindset to put things in perspective and not project personal insecurities or experiences onto others.”
“Around 90 per cent of my clients feel less stressed when they do a ‘digital detox’ and stop using apps like Facebook or Instagram. They feel less anxious and depressed after not exposing themselves to the toxic environment of social narcissism and low self-esteem that can easily install itself on social media,” Youssef said.
As a result of such observations, social media is sometimes seen as one of the most crippling pandemics of our time. It is an easy and convenient way to see what other people are doing in their lives, but it can come at a huge cost. The accessibility offered by the platforms means that people unconsciously cross other people’s boundaries and do not respect their own boundaries and limits. They may start comparing the image they perceive of others with the image they perceive of themselves, which may be both distorted and incomplete.
While it is normal that we seek social acceptance and validation from others, it can become dangerous when this social acceptance and validation takes place only on social media and not through real human interactions. “The apps in themselves are not toxic, but they can trigger insecurities in psychologically and mentally unstable people. Taking an initiative not to trigger such insecurities is a healthy step for collective psychological well-being,” Youssef said.
However, while many have praised Instagram’s initiative, others have been asking how far it will affect influencers and businesses. “I think this is a really positive change for the platform. Instagram stories don’t have public metrics, but that hasn’t stopped it from exploding in popularity with users, brands and influencers,” said Salma Hesham, a 32-year-old fashion blogger in Cairo.
“The fact that likes will now be out of sight means that the focus is on the content rather than the numbers, and this could allow people to post more freely,” she said.
The change does have major implications for influencers, however. It could make it more difficult for brands to find Instagram influencers to work with, for example. Brands care more about reach and engagement than they do about followers, so without the ability to publicly view an influencer’s likes, it could make it harder to gauge how engaged their community is.
“Likes were always a false currency, but they are an easy number to give when asked how content is performing and an easy way to compare. So, I think this shift will force businesses to look at what’s actually working,” Hesham said.
It seems that Instagram is not the only platform that is pursuing this approach. In an effort to improve the well-being of content creators, YouTube is also testing the impact of hiding dislike counts. However, after it announced that it would be making a major change to the way dislikes work on its platform, many content creators spoke out against the decision, saying it would not stop poor content appearing.
While the change does not remove dislikes altogether from appearing, the number of dislikes a video has will no longer appear next to the dislike button on the YouTube site. But viewers will still be able to freely like and dislike videos, and content creators will still be able to view the number of dislikes to help provide feedback to YouTubers.
YouTube has cited the well-being of content creators and the need to prevent “targeted dislike campaigns” taking place on its platform as reasons behind the change. “But this isn’t the first time that YouTube has attempted to change the dislike function on its platform,” commented Omneya Ibrahim, a 34-year-old media researcher in Cairo.
“A couple of years ago, YouTube set out to remove the button completely for a similar reason to the current decision to remove the number of views shown. Back then, it was due to users spamming the dislike button. Now it might be YouTube’s way of combating the current cancel culture,” Ibrahim said, referring to campaigns to “deplatform” various individuals for their views in several Western countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.