We humans tend to imbue particular numbers with all kinds of mystical properties. Good things come in threes (but so do bad things), elevators skip the 13th floor, and an Instagram post lives or dies by its 11th like.
On the photo-sharing app, comments and likes are the two main modes of interacting. Either could mean “hey that pic you shared was cool" or at least “hey that pic you shared is not so off-putting or dull that I'll at least issue a virtual nod toward it.”
Likes, far more common than comments and doled out via a quick double tap, are truly the simple little gesture at the heart of Instagram.
As the legend goes, one particular like is the most valuable of all, hoisting your little square share out of obscurity forevermore. To the dutiful Instagrammer (IGer), the 11th like is far more than the sum of its parts, both social solace and tipping point.
nothing is more important in life than the 11th like on instagram— Sam Stryker (@sbstryker) July 18, 2014
If you haven't prayed for the 11th like yourself, you probably (understandably) don't get it. The roots of the obsession, often hashtagged or mentioned across other networks, lay in the design of the app itself, which has changed very little since its launch in 2010. And actually, the whole thing makes perfect sense from a user interface perspective, even if fretting over Insta-popularity arguably doesn't.
Being new to instagram and my lack of followers i am so grateful when I get to the 11th like #humble
— julietta (@___boot) July 17, 2014
Let's say you post a photo to Instagram. As users like your post, the app displays their names under your photo. When you hit 10 likes, the very next one will trigger the names to condense into the number 11—a visible marker of a post's relative success or failure.
After your photo is vaulted out of the shameful purgatory between one and 10 likes, the number of likes will tally upward, starting at 11. For many like-conscious users, the 11th like is the payoff from a successful share, the time to breathe easy and know that you didn’t take your account one selfie too far.
On Instagram, posts usually accumulate likes quite quickly. Like Twitter, and unlike Facebook, an Instagram feed is pure chronology. Content more than a few hours old doesn't resurface unless you go digging for it. For normal users—the 11th-like phenomenon doesn’t really apply to users with a large follower base—a post that doesn’t tip over to 11 is a consummate flop. If that photo is of your cat or your own visage from a front-facing camera, doubly so. (Whoops.)
For image-conscious IGers, a post that fails to tip over the 10th like can feel like clutter in an otherwise well-curated feed.
"In the spirit of honesty, I'll tell you that I actually delete Instagrams that fail to meet the 11th-like threshold," admits Taylor Lorenz, Instagram power user and head of social media for the Daily Mail. "There's nothing worse than checking the likes on a photo and seeing eight to nine sad names listed out, probably all relatives or good friends giving a pity like."
With nearly 6,000 followers and more than 1900 posts, it's hard to imagine that Lorenz posts many misfires. Still, it can happen to the best of us (pictured above). Admittedly, I'm not above quietly deleting an Instagram that feels like a bad fit after the fact. I try to keep my cat pic to not-cat pic ratio down to a strict 1:9. But since Lorenz prunes her page too, I don't feel so bad.
"The names also distract from the caption," she explains. "Not that I spent hours crafting my captions, but I think Instagrams with the like number, instead of names listed out, look better. It looks cleaner, not full of extra clutter."
Lorenz notes that some particularly heinous hashtags probably tap into quest for the 11th like too. Junk hashtags like #11likes and #likeforlike regularly clog up Instagram feeds, particularly among the app's shameless, bustling tween set. On Instagram, subcommunities and quirks lend themselves to exploration through the hashtag, and the 11th like is no exception.
As the social blog Quicksprout notes in its guide to optimizing your Instagram account, timing is everything. If you don't start climbing the like ladder quickly, you might not make it up:
46.15% of all comments happen within the first hour, and 69.23% of all comments happen within the first three hours. So, if you can’t get traction within the first three hours of posting a photo, it is probably not going to gain traction down the road.
Purely anecdotally, the 11th-like phenomenon seems most potent among Instagram’s hashtag-happy teens and tweens, who even take to Twitter to heave virtual sighs of relief at accruing 11 likes:
This might be weird but I like when I'm someone's 11th like on Instagram because I'm the one who turned the names in numbers.— andrea brødbeck (@andiebrodie8) July 18, 2014
Nothing quite like the feeling of an 11th like on Instagram...— Mike (@Mikevp100) July 17, 2014
Just promise that if you happen across one of my Instagrams that needs that tiny extra push, you'll do me a solid. Like for like.
Illustration by Jason Reed