Changes to the platform’s API could prove devastating to the influencer economy, and so what?  

Author: Benjamin M. Zubreckyj 

Interview w/ Social Media Specialist: Nicholas Scott

Overnight, Instagram introduced radical changes to the platform’s API that could spell disaster for many who’ve cultivated a substantial following and in some cases, a lucrative livelihood, from a practice known as Influencer Marketing, by which account holders charge businesses big money to advertise and/or recommend their products on the platform. 

With the interface changes first tested in Canada in late 2018, Instagram chief, Adam Mosseri, stated that the fundamental aim of the overhaul was to ‘minimise the stress of posting online with users competing over the number of likes their posts receive’. 

What are the changes? 

The biggest overhaul to the interface comes in the form of the removal of follower- and like endpoints- like counts will no longer be visible to browsing users of the platform, instead only being visible to the individual user. 


Many suggest that this will fundamentally change how users interact with Instagram, as ‘likes’ are the currency by which millions of users measure ‘success’. In a recent blogpost, Mosseri insinuated that this is part of the problem: “we want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people that they care about”. 

Included in the API overhaul was changes to the public media endpoint: this will mean that agencies can no longer access content from public hashtags or handles. Put simply: only authorised Instagram business accounts or posts that @mention the business account, will be accessible.

Instagram also announced revisions to the platform’s ‘rate limit cap’, reducing the number of times a third-party app, that connects to their API, can call Instagram data from 5k/hour to just 200/hour. Though it is predicted that most agencies will not feel much of an impact from the changes, those relying heavily on third-party applications to boost and schedule media content may want to consider hiring a social media intern. 

Why now?

Following the release of information surrounding Facebook’s (IG parent company) involvement with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook’s user data to manipulate the 2016 elections, Facebook has faced widespread criticism and calls to protect user privacy. As a result of the controversy, Facebook-owned properties (including Instagram) face API changes that limit the amount of personal information accessible to third parties. (CITE: )

Representatives at Instagram also indicated that mental health concerns were a fundamental reason behind the new changes, with many children’s charities, human rights groups and mental health professionals warning of the potentially deadly effects of social media use on young people.

Who is most affected? 

Although marketing, media agencies and major affiliates/account holders may have to change in the way they approach their brand and promotion on the platforms, it is Influencers that are most likely to feel a big impact of these sweeping changes as the industry is almost entirely based on a like-economy- 

Samsung UK Mobile chief said in an interview with The Guardian UK: ‘smartphones should be slaves, not masters’, and it seems that in the race for the undivided attention of users, and in increasingly ad/like-based business models, tech companies have brought about something close to the latter.  

What’s dopamine got to do with it?

In the 1980s, experiments by Wolfram Schultz, Professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge University, (See experiments for ‘Rat City’), showed that in the area known as the midbrain, dopamine relates to the reward we receive for an action. 

In publishing his findings, Schultz stated ‘[our experiments] found a signal in the brain that explains our most profound behaviours, in which every one of us is engaged constantly”.

..Dopamine– what Psychologist Vaughaun Bell described as the Kim Kardashian of Molecules, it seems, is responsible for regulating much of our desire, ambition, and perhaps most dangerously; our addiction responses- 

-Enter Instagram-

An increasing chorus of evidence now suggests that instant feedback on content, can initially boost people’s self-esteem, but eventually bring others down if they do not get as many likes, creating compulsion loops that are disturbingly similar to those observed by scientists conducting experiments on the effect of drugs on the brain, as well as dopamine experiments.

In a piece titled ‘How Evil Is Tech?’, (published by the New York Times), author David Brooks wrote: “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create toxic ‘compulsion loops’.

Instagram’s capacity to influence behaviour is immense and well-documented. The addictive power of like-based social media economies can become devastating and the effects are oft not seen leading to a long-lasting negative impact on the mental health of the users, especially young adults.

In a study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK, it was found that social media platforms have serious impacts on levels of anxiety, depression, self-identity and body image issues with users. In this study, Instagram topped all other platforms in terms of negative mental health impacts- it is plain to see that Instagram’s like-reward system encourages the over-curation of images, favouring perfection and ‘photoshopped versions of reality’ over reality itself- inevitably leading to unhealthy comparisons- and young women are amongst the most psychologically vulnerable. 

Instagram launched a similar trial in Canada On May 2019, and the new test is rolling out in New Zealand, Ireland, Italy, Japan and Brazil.

Admittedly, though these changes peel back but one layer of the bitter onion that is Instagram’s (at times, grotesque) superficial like-based economy, it is a strong first step in the right direction- one which will, with any luck, create some distance between us and what will likely be known to future generations as the first great plague of the 20th century.

I sat down with Webfirm’s Social Media Specialist, Nicholas Scott, to ask what he thought the changes meant for the future of the platform:

Q: What will this mean for Influencer marketers currently enjoying the benefits of this like-based economy?

A: Personally, I think this is a great move by Instagram.  For influencers/affiliates, it just means they have to dig a little deeper and work a little harder. If they rely solely on likes & social proof to sell a third party’s goods or services, then they’ve got an issue. Additionally, they will need to justify other metrics as a part of their endorsement success, rather than the gratification that comes from such vanity metrics – which is a good thing.

Furthermore, it promotes authenticity, legitimacy and trust in my opinion. Influencers with existing equity and a noticeable current presence should have already built up a genuine and loyal audience, whereas those dreaming of becoming an ‘influencer,’ will find it more difficult to build awareness in the form of social proof. The barriers to entry have just become a lot more strict, no more purchasing fake likes, fake engagement and fake followers, it means nothing in essence. If you are genuine and legitimate, you have a better chance of carrying on your everyday influencer life

Q: What can be said about the potential effect on businesses?

A: For businesses already advertising on the platform, I don’t think you need to close down your doors. Yes, people will argue that it will become noticeably more difficult to quantify the success of your campaigns with the absence of likes, but hey – who actually bases their campaign around the number of people that liked your content? Okay, it looks good & helps to develop trust, but seriously, wouldn’t you rather drive specific action? A click through to your website, a form completion, a product purchase or a phone contact is much more valuable, right? If you want people to comment and tag their friends to spread the value of your product, they can still do this, which gives a greater insight into the consensus than a simple post like.

For businesses and Influencers, I think there will be a greater reliance and dependence on the messaging, the communication and the creativity of the content, which is what it should’ve been from the start as opposed to selling yourself out. It also means that businesses in search for an influencer will have to work a little bit harder, you’re not going to find your ideal brand ambassador from a glance of the 3 most recent uploads, a little more research will be required. On an individual level, I think the absence of likes will be of momentous benefit. 

Q: All in all, is this a good idea?

A: This beta promotes a less competitive, less vain and less obsessive usage of social media. If your audience wants to click on your ad or discover more about your business, they will complete this action regardless of how many likes your ad/post had. Your like count is still visible to you, which is the only thing that should really matter I guess. 

When you’re converting success of your more recent Instagram campaigns, scratch further below the surface and focus on metrics and statistics that actually mean something – good riddance I say!

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