Social networks built on public status markers are now starting to hide them. In six countries, Instagram, the company of one billion users, is trying out hiding the number of likes that a post receives. The goal is to reduce pressure on people.
Less competitive, less pressurized and more personal, Instagram surmises.
The social media platform, which began testing that theory in May in Canada, last month, expanded the experiment to include Instagram users in Australia, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, Italy and New Zealand who will no longer be able to see the counts of likes and video views on other users’ posts.
They will still be able to see who liked someone else’s post or viewed their video, but there won’t be a tally. Of course, people can still do a manual count, if they want to take the time. And users will still be able to see like counts and video view counts for their own posts.
If you primarily consume Instagram Stories, you’re already seeing one version of it. “We are expanding the test to get a better sense of how the experience resonates with Instagram’s global community,” Seine Kim, a Facebook spokeswoman, said. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012. Instagram did not share any information about what the testing with users in Canada has shown, nor would it say how long the testing will take place in each country. It is also not clear how the company is measuring the test results.
In late April, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, announced at Facebook’s annual event for developers that the testing would begin in Canada. “We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition,” Mr. Mosseri said at the event. “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 they care about.” Following years of increasing scrutiny, leaders at each company seem to be gathering around the same small solution: adjusting or eliminating metrics.
This move represents a notable turn for services so strongly identified with public, comparable and newly valuable numbers. It also raises the question: If this is their solution, what do these people think is the problem?
Influence as Public Health Crisis:
That Instagram can trigger status anxiety is hard to dispute; even Twitter’s most satisfied customers would admit that it can become “toxic.” But to conclude that these men are merely late to engage with the most obvious (and obviously correct) of their users’ critiques would be a misunderstanding. Their problems aren’t our problems. Their job, as ever, is to get people to use the services. Metrics helped them do this job for a while, showing new users what to aim for and then reminding them constantly what success looks like. This was during the growth phase, for both users and the new platforms they were joining. Their priorities seemed aligned. Now, that era is passing.
Instagram may be the pride of Facebook, and it’s still growing briskly overall, according to the company. One problem suggested, and answered, by hiding likes is that people aren’t posting to their feeds as much as they used to. Instead, they’re posting Stories.
Removing a metric from beneath regular Instagram posts might alleviate some stress among users; it would also help minimise the sense that the thing that first made Instagram popular is in decline.
The real problem, from Instagram’s perspective, is the kind of thing you might worry about if you were clearly “incentivised” by metrics of an internal, top-level variety: not that Instagram isn’t growing, or that people aren’t using it, but that maybe they’re using one part of it less, when they should be using all of it more.
Instagram without quantified likes might have been nicer, in some way. But it would not have produced the Instagram we know today, and certainly not the Instagram purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars, which became the Instagram of influencers, which is the Instagram of status anxiety, which is the Instagram of more than a billion users.
Toying with emotions is nothing new for social-media giants: In 2015 Facebook let users react with “laughter” and “anger” emojis to posts, rather than relying solely on its iconic Thumbs-Up. That same year, Twitter swapped the star that marked “Favourites” for a sentimental heart. Now, via a series of tests starting in Canada and now expanding to six more countries, including influencer-laden lands like Australia and Japan, Instagram is mulling the idea of removing like-counts from public view altogether.
It appears to be for a good cause. A March 2019 study published by the American Psychological Association showed increases in depression and anxiety and dips in self-esteem for those born after 1995 that can be linked, in part, to social-media platforms. According to the survey, these issues were markedly aggravated starting in 2011, a year after the photo-friendly Instagram launched.
“Comparing your successes, lifestyle and physical appearance happens easily on this app because of the visual photo sharing,” said Liz Beecroft, a New York psychotherapist who also creates content for Instagram intended to inspire her more than 12,000 followers. “Adding likes to the mix can increase the urge to compare,” she added, leaving people feeling unsupported or uncreative when they don’t see a certain number of likes roll in for a post.
An Instagram spokesperson said that, in its tests, the goal of removing likes is to help “followers focus on the photos and videos [they] share, not how many likes they get.”
The company believes that by allowing only users to see their own likes, the pressure to perform will ultimately abate. Then users can more freely “tell their story” rather than trying to compete among others with lifestyle highlight reels shot from flattering angles and anxiously watching their likes publicly tick up (or not).
Instagram’s supposedly compassionate plan will “allow users to be blind to these superficial metrics,” said Ms. Beecroft. A more callous view, from Ronn Torossian, a crisis communications expert, suggests that the strategy is meant to weaken the influencer market that has gotten a “free ride” by profitably exploiting Instagram as a marketing tool. When reached for comment, Instagram said that in these exploratory stages it was still “thinking through ways for creators to communicate value to their partners.”
Myriad factors influence how many eyes Instagram’s algorithm exposes your image to, including your post’s timeliness and the likelihood other users will be interested in the content based on previous habits. Most savvy Instagrammers’ strategies would remain relevant in a post-likes world. So it’s possible removing those hearts would simply restore the app’s original raison d’être: sharing over-filtered shots of life’s most mundane moments.
A ‘like’ has value beyond its function as a digital ego stroke. Yes, people use social media to explore the lives of others—from friends and family to role models and total strangers—but it’s often in pursuit of better lives themselves. Users can note trends. Each like helps Instagram and its community determine the quality of a post, with often the most photogenic cream rising to the top.
Instagram relies on its community to steer the platform, so it probably couldn’t wholly remove likes without steering users away.
“It’s fun to see what other people have liked and a nice way to discover new things,” said Amrit Sidhu, the co-founder of One-Stop Away, a creative agency that focuses on women’s advocacy and inclusivity.
Yet even removing likes from public view, while still allowing users to double tap every image they adore, may not appreciably improve mental health the way the app allegedly intends. Users would still be able to scroll past aspirational photos that make them feel self-conscious, now—all of which, studies show, play a large role in how Instagram affects its users’ mental health. And, of course, Instagrammers will still be able to see their own likes even if everyone else can’t, so they could easily still be discouraged when a post fails to connect with their followers.
“I don’t think this initiative is a genuine move toward bettering mental health—that argument is like slapping a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” lamented Ms. Sidhu, who boasts more than 40,000 followers on the social platform. “We need to focus on the lack of access to mental health support and resources in this country and address the root of why we all are so affected by likes and numbers rather than simply removing them.”
Instead, Ms Sidhu argued removing likes might most affect those who use the app for business, especially the influencers with whom so many of us have a love/hate relationship and the brands that hire them. Instagram said there’s no truth to the claim that removing likes is meant to push brands to pay for sponsored posts. But without public likes, brands will struggle to gauge how well they can align their products with a targeted demo and eventually, brands might have to pony up and pay Instagram for official ads.
Instagram could probably help users who struggle with social media’s effects on mental health in many ways—like only allowing dog content. But removing the heart of the platform isn’t worthy of a like.
These views are excerpts from WSJ and New York Times.