Pondering how social media approval affects us all
I am very sure that you must have come across some, if not all, of these types of comments before: “Please like my post, I need to get a hundred likes!!”, “Could you please like my post and also share it with your friends, I need to win this competition”, “Like for Lagbaja, Retweet for Tamedun!!”, “My likes and retweets are not endorsements of the post!”, “If my last post gets a thousand likes, I will post an exclusive video of me doing something I have never done before.”
Social media is replete with comments like these. It is not unusual to find someone requesting likes to do something or win something. It is one of the major forms of engagement online. You can react to posts on Facebook and LinkedIn using any one of at least six different reactions. You can like a post on Instagram, Tiktok, and Twitter (you can retweet for extra engagement). You can clap for a post on Medium or give a thumbs up (or thumbs down) on YouTube. Every platform has its like button and this is usually the initial first step towards attracting visibility online.
Social media likes have become so ubiquitous today that no social media platform can survive without having some form of like button installed. Even WhatsApp added chat reactions a while ago, so you see how important indicating your opinion on social media posts has become. Think about it, how do you gauge the acceptability of an online post? You would most likely look at the number of likes it has received. Some people may go a step further and comment on the post, and some may even save it. We all know, though, that the number of people who like a post is more than those who comment on it.
I have been on social media for over fifteen years. I think Hi5 was the first social media platform I joined and then Facebook. I can’t remember if Facebook had likes when I joined but I do remember so many changes happened in those early days so it must have made an early appearance. From then till now and as other social networks have emerged, the “like” button, in whichever form it takes on each platform, has played a huge role in influencing human behaviour.
When you like a post, you are most likely communicating anything from: “I see this”, “I agree with this”, “I love this”, or “I want this”. The like button validates the post and the poster. There are people who aimlessly like posts without even interacting with the post, this is not about them. Some people like their own posts, but I still cannot wrap my head around this expression of “self-love”. I mean, why on earth would you like your post when posting it in the first place indicates that you liked it enough to post? Isn’t there a rule somewhere against this behaviour?
Thinking back, how did likes become such an effective social currency? How did people begin o associate such great value with the like button? I am sure some scientists would be responsible for this. You know those who are constantly studying human behaviour? They must have found out that likes were synonymous with rewards and had a feel-good effect. This most likely encouraged social media platform owners to include it in the design of their platforms as the results were quite evident.
The average person, most likely a young person who shares a social media post, expects to receive likes. The more the likes, the happier they are as it translates to some form of validation. It wasn’t until I realised that some people delete posts with few likes that I began to understand the power of the like. Once a post does not receive what they consider to be a significant number of likes, that post goes to the trash bin or probably gets reposted at another time with another caption. Some people consider posts with few likes as a personal affront from their online friends. Didn’t they see the post? Why didn’t they like it? You don’t like me anymore; our friendship is over! Whilst I do not completely understand this behaviour, I will admit that I have been tempted once or twice to delete a post that barely anyone liked. I, however, didn’t consider it a slight from anybody because I have more sense, I post because I want to and not because I want likes (this is not a sub in any way or maybe it is?)
There’s a relationship between social media likes and self-esteem, and by extension, mental health. Increasingly, we find more people, especially younger ones who have grown up with social media, express vulnerabilities around the performance of their social media pages. Many people are an extension of their social media activity and if a post doesn’t receive the desired engagement, they could be quick to consider that they were to blame in some way. Maybe they didn’t wear the right clothes or they didn’t pose in a more eye-catching manner. Maybe the filters weren’t popping or did they post at the wrong time? And very often, once discomfort arises from engagement issues, their mental health could be negatively impacted.
Predictably, if people associate their real-world emotions with their social media performance, they could be encouraged to “fake it for the gram”. Ultimately, such people would no longer be their true selves online but rather curate a social media image that they believe would enhance their social media performance. I see some posts and I wonder to myself, did this person think before sharing this post? Most likely, all of their social media activity has been targeted at soliciting likes even if it means compromising their values. They will say they are just being themselves but are they truly?
But social media likes don’t affect individuals alone, we also see its impact on society. Many brands use diverse metrics including likes to determine what type of posts to share and which influencers to work with. The screening process of some beauty pageants even includes the number of likes that contestants receive on the organisation’s official social media platforms. And we all know that political engagement has been heavy online. Just think about the last Nigerian elections and maybe even the Cambridge Analytica fiasco related to the US elections some years back. Likes show the pulse of the social media audience concerning whichever agenda is being promoted.
Realising the real and imagined outcomes that have surrounded social media likes, many users have clamoured for social media platforms to change the way posts are engaged with. Now, on Instagram, you can decide to hide the number of likes your post receives. Maybe you won’t get worried if the world doesn’t know that your post only garnered a hundred likes instead of a thousand. On YouTube, you can no longer view the number of people who disliked a video. Why promote the haters? These small changes would hopefully enhance the way people engage with posts.
Irrespective of whatever changes or redesigns are made to the like buttons across social media platforms, one thing is sure: the like button would still impact greatly emotions, mental health, and well-being. What then is the future of social media and the like button? How will our relationship with likes alter the way we relate to social media?
Some food for thought. Would it be unfair to expect people to focus more on their real lives rather than hoping their social media activity validates their emotions? Could people, especially young people, look inward and realise that they can be whoever they want to be without waiting for external validation? Could parents and society support the development of children better by reinforcing more positive values in them? I don’t have the answers but I hope that these could be key steps towards people realising that social media must not control their real-world life. This is the way I see things today.