Fashion and the Currency of the Like Button

With over a decade of social media behind us and a year of living through screens, online presence is as important as ever – but at what cost? Is it good for fashion? Is it good for us?

Once upon a time, the Like button was how we showed the world our favourite music, films, hobbies and fashion. It was how we interacted with the constant stream of statuses broadcasting our friends’ thoughts and the over-enthusiastic uploads of 200 blurry photos from every social event we attended. 

When my friends and I joined Facebook at 13, how could we have known what was being unlocked at the click of a Like button; the mental thresholds being irreversibly crossed? Likes today rarely represent our authentic life or our interests, rather the life that we want. The dangers of the Like button are well documented – it has been linked to a rise in anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues, especially among young people. Instagram and Facebook have acknowledged this: in May 2021 both platforms allowed users the option to remove the ability to see likes.

Women have long been accustomed to requesting media safeguards for their mental health. Decades of airbrushed images in fashion magazines and other advertisements have prompted campaigns for more body diversity, warnings on images that have been digitally altered to make them ‘perfect’ as well as regulations for adverts for cosmetic procedures. In order to combat the contemporary stresses and struggles exacerbated by the Like button, various ideas have been proposed. The most popular is for likes to be hidden, a feature Instagram began rolling out on some accounts from 2019. As of last month, this feature is optional for all users. While some users have expressed anger at their ‘earned’ validation currency being removed, others have celebrated the removal of likes as a euphoric breakthrough. “One of the most humanitarian moves they could have made,” one user said on Twitter. 

But does this go far enough? Users don’t have total autonomy over what they consume or who sees their posts. When the app removed the chronological feed in favour of a personalised algorithm in 2016, it caused quite a backlash that continues to this day. If a post doesn’t secure enough comments and shares it might be hidden from feeds and receive fewer likes. Some accounts are even shadowbanned, meaning it’s even harder for their posts to be boosted by the algorithm. This is particularly problematic for creatives, many of whom work in fashion, who market their work online and rely on the algorithm for income. Furthermore, shadowbanning disproportionately censors marginalised communities, narrowing representation in fashion and other industries by limiting abilities to amass a following. 

The pressure to post an attractive photo and garner as many likes as possible is a ubiquitous experience. Filters, clothes, makeup, location, image quality, friends’ approval – all these factors need to be considered to achieve the only relevant approval: likes. Not getting enough likes can, quite frankly, be humiliating. The ‘likes economy’ has become a means to assess and judge others, including friends, dates and potential employees. It’s eerily close to an episode of TV series Black Mirror where we are now rating people in our social and professional circles the way we might rate a service, like Uber or Airbnb. 

We know this highly competitive atmosphere is unhealthy, but we’re trapped in a loop of appreciation highs and lows of inadequacy. It’s not uncommon to hear people wish they could become successful enough to delete all social media without the fear of becoming irrelevant. In this economy, many are plagued by fears about the public humiliation that ensues when a post doesn’t receive enough attention – limited Likes because an image isn’t ‘good enough’ or is too staged (“like-baiting”). 

Social media use has dramatically increased during Covid, with a projected 80% of females in the UK engaging more in social media than before. Posting images, however, has dropped significantly, with up to 40% of young women posting less due to limited travel and social interaction. Idealised images of smiles over brunch, nights out, and #gymlife have dwindled. But the fast fashion mill keeps on turning over as consumers rush to snap a pic of themselves wearing the latest fleeting trend. Fashion high-street brand hauls are as common as ever, whether on YouTube, IGTV or TikTok. Consumers are ordering excessive amounts of clothes to their homes to ‘trial’ (aka snap a shot for the gram in pursuit of likes.) These clothes often end up as returns, moved to land fill or burnt, adding to the climate crisis. 

Consumers contribute to the fashion system through Likes. Fashion acknowledges and follows the profit. Consumers are then fed this through the app again. Knowing this, designers amend garments to look good on screen, less so IRL, reducing fashion to a one-dimensional online platform experience, sure to disappoint in real life. At fashion weeks, models’ headshots are pinned next to the number of followers they have. Those with the most make the cut. A who’s who of models on the runway and celebs on the frow has become a measure of a show’s success; the best shows are those with the highest net followers of participants and attendees. 

Those responsible for creating these tech tools may be turning against them. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, commented back in 2018 that he was planning to remove the ability to like tweets, thinking it would improve the quality of debate online. A former Google employee, Tristan Harris, says the tech giant wanted to tackle addiction to the like button, which had been originally cultivated by borrowing techniques from casinos to tease tech addiction. Clinical psychologist Dr Bob Patton says people are affected by the concept of being liked. “They shape their own version of reality depending on what people like,” he explains, “and they believe this is a judgement or an endorsement of a particular look or image.” 

Is there any hope that we can gain independence from the tyranny of the like button? As of 2017, data was considered the most valuable asset in the world, above oil. Business, politics, and creative industries, including fashion, all rely on it for marketing edge. Debates about the currency of the like button will continue to rage, among tech CEOs and teenagers alike. Mark Zuckerberg himself once attempted to stoke the argument with a proposal for a “dislike” button – God help us. 

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