‘Likes’ Don’t Have to Ruin Social Networks—If You Do Them Right

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Key Takeaways

  • Instagram rival Glass finally adds a like button.
  • But you still can’t see a counter.
  • Likes and follower counts are the fuel of social networks.
Someone using a smartphone in a restaurant with hearts and likes flowing out of the screen.

d3sign / Getty Images

Paid-only photography social network Glass has finally given in and added likes—but not the way you might think. 

Likes, follower counts, and ever-shifting algorithmic timelines—they're all designed to keep you scrolling and opening your social network apps obsessively. When the photo-sharing app Glass launched, it did so without any of these. But in a radical twist, Glass has just added likes, and in typical fashion, it's done so in a way that doesn't ruin the app. It's so sensible you wonder if it would be possible for Instagram, Twitter, and the rest to copy. 

"On Instagram, I think removing likes would be relatively frictionless and would result in a similar implementation (at least visibly) to Glass," says photographer and app developer Chris Hannah told Lifewire via email direct message.

"But for Twitter, it's a bit more complex to hide the numbers, as they can be useful, especially when coming across a viral tweet, for example, where you can quickly see the number of likes and retweets a tweet in your timeline has. In some ways, these stats can provide context to a piece of content, or at least indicate why you might be seeing that content in your feed."

A car parked in front of a wall on which someone has painted "All we need is more likes."

Daria Nepriakhina / Unsplash

Likable

Likes might seem like a simple feature. You like a tweet or a photo, and you tap the like button. But it's way more complicated. Instagram influencers, for example, use likes and follower counts as metrics to prove their popularity, and therefore their value to the marketers that pay them.

Twitter didn't always have likes. It used to have stars, which made it feel more like a way to bookmark a tweet. I can't be the only one who feels dirty every time they 'like' an unsavory tweet to save it for reference. 

And at a personal level, we might judge the value of our photographs by the number of likes they attract. 

Glass decided upfront to avoid that kind of manipulation. But now, it has relented and added a like button.

Like Likes, but, Like, Better

“What would a like button look like if it wasn’t fueling addictive algorithms and collecting personal data? How would it act if it wasn’t the most prioritized action in the app? What if it was more intentional—a little slower?” says Glass on its blog

It would look like this:

A screenshot of the Glass app illustrating how "Appreciation" (or Likes) appear in the app.

Glass

It's called "appreciation," and it's a way to tell the photographer that you dug their picture. "The way I see it, it's a cleaner way to replace the 'Nice shot' or 'Great photo' comments," says Hannah in a blog post

Glass's likes don't show a counter, nor, says Hannah, is there an easy way to see a list of likes for your photos. What you get is a notification when somebody taps to show their appreciation. Unfortunately, you probably also get the little hit of the addiction that we associate with this kind of thing. But if you're going to do likes, this is the way to do it. 

Glass isn't the first social network to deliberately leave out features that previously seemed essential. Micro.blog is a kind of mashup between Twitter and a short personal blogging service. It has no likes and yet is popular and compelling. "Micro.blog is not a popularity contest, so we don't have public like counts either," Micro.blog founder Manton Reece told Lifewire via email.

Engagement

If likes and follower counts aren’t essential to social networks, could Twitter, Instagram, and others follow along? 

It’s possible, but it would mean a fundamental change to how these services work. Because they are free to use, Twitter and Instagram make their money from advertising, and that advertising is targeted based on all kinds of metrics drawn from how you use the app or website. 

"In some ways, these stats can provide context to a piece of content, or at least indicate why you might be seeing that content in your feed."

Twitter could keep likes around but hide them from users. Ditto for follower counts. Instagram has even done experiments in this direction. But in the end, these metrics are what keep us coming back. We like follower counts, and we love likes. They may be what makes social networks so addictive. 

A new service like Glass can make its position clear from the beginning. In this case, its position is the opposite of Instagram’s popularity contest. But the existing networks are unlikely to change, because why would they? A few folks complain about likes and follower counts, but does anybody really care? Or know that they care? 

Still, if nothing else, Glass shows that alternatives can exist and even thrive, which at least gives the folks who do care a place to go.

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