Instagram Experiments with Hiding “Like” Counts

Instagram is testing out hidden "like" counts in certain regions. How will this major change to the platform impact its users?

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Today we are faced with the question: “If you post a picture, and no one sees how many ‘likes’ it has, does it even exist?” (crediting Wired with originally posing this question)

Social media has been a mainstay in the headlines in recent months– particularly Facebook–which now also owns Instagram, which coincidentally is at the center of today’s story.

So back to our original question: “If you post a picture, and no one sees its ‘like’ count, does it even exist? Well, Instagram users around the globe are presumably going to find out next week. 

Instagram began testing out the hidden Like counts in Canada back in April, then in Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand in July. Facebook started a similar experiment in Australia in September. Instagram said last week the test would expand to the U.S., but now it’s running everywhere to a small percentage of users in each country. Instagram says that feedback to the experiment so far has been positive, but it’s continuing to test rather than fully implement because it’s such a drastic change to the app.

This phase of testing is perhaps the final step before Instagram officially launches the change and hides Like counts for all users everywhere. The company is surely watching closely to determine how the test improves mental health, but also how it impacts usage of the app.

Instagram claims that it wants to be a place people feel comfortable expressing themselves, and can focus on photos and videos they share rather than how many Likes they get. With this change, users will still be able to see who Liked their own posts and a total like count by tapping on the Likers list. Viewers of a post will only see a few names of mutual friends who Liked it. They can even search through the Likers list but would have to manually count them to figure out the total number of likes.

Hiding like counts isn’t Instagram’s first action aimed at controlling the user experience. They’ve  already been using algorithms and filters to remove offensive or divisive comments or pictures. And even though Instagram claims feedback to this move has been positive, it hasn’t come without pushback from some users, some who for instance, use Instagram for their business and are worried about a drop in engagement. 

So how will the removal of Like counts actually change user behavior? (break) Will users be less inclined to ‘Like’ a photo if they don’t have the context of how many others have done the same? And how will that impact overall on-platform engagement?

This week, influencer marketing platform HypeAuditor released a study of content from more than 150k Instagram influencers, each of whom sees at least 30% of their following coming from users in one of the regions where Instagram’s hidden Like counts test is currently running.

Here’s what they found. For smaller influencers, there has been a pronounced reduction in some regions, but not all. For mid-level influencers the drop in engagement was much larger for some regions than others. Japan was an outlier, actually seeing increases in engagement.

But the results weren’t very definitive – they found an overall reduction in Like activity in regions impacted by the change, but their categorization (influencers with 30% of their following in the test regions) does raise a few questions around the specific methodology.

The data does show that the removal of total Like counts is seemingly having some impact on overall engagement stats for influencers. Is that a good or a bad thing? It’s hard to know – maybe reducing the reach of influencers who showcase unrealistic lifestyles and/or physiques is actually kind of the point, as that would also lessen the negative societal impacts through comparison.

We don’t really know though because Instagram hasn’t shared its measures of success for the trial, or what metrics it’s looking at, internally, in order to determine if removing total Like counts is a beneficial step. But either way, the data here would appear to suggest that removing total Like counts is also likely to reduce total Likes allocated overall, at least to influential users. Japan is the only real anomaly – and HypeAuditor notes that Japanese influencers see the second-highest overall engagement rates in the world (behind only Greece).   

So instagram influencers may very well see an overall reduction in Like counts – but that wouldn’t definitively impact reach, or even engagement. These stats look at influencer performance specifically, but if the same trends hold for all users, that may mean that influencers still perform just as well, with comparative stats for regular people also dropping. If that’s the case, then influencer engagement may remain well above the norm, so again, the true impacts are hard to determine.

Balancing the needs of artists, brands, and the average user is admittedly difficult. But Instagram claims they will always place the needs of their users first. CEO Adam Mosseri said, “It means we’re going to put a 15-year-old kid’s interests before a public speaker’s interest. When we look at the world of public content, we’re going to put people in that world before organizations and corporations.” 

Although Mosseri was careful to note that “bullying predates Instagram” and the internet, he did mention further measures that the platform is taking to improve the mental and emotional health of its users. The company is working with therapists and engineers to develop other tools to prevent and de-escalate bullying on the platform, such as figuring out a way to make users take a break when they need it.

Admittedly, the obsession with like counts comes with adverse effects. It creates a culture that isn’t helpful for well-being and isn’t fruitful for creative energy. And as WIRED previously reported, social media researchers have argued that when users tailor their content to whatever garners the most engagement (or outrage), the result is a radicalized environment that makes healthy, happy conversations almost impossible. 

As TechCrunch notes, hiding Likes is probably a win for the sanity of humanity, and a boon to creativity. Before, people often self-censored and declined to share posts they worried wouldn’t get enough Likes, or deleted posts that didn’t. They’d try to create the perfect public persona, making their life look glamorous, rather than what was authentic or what they really wanted to communicate. Meanwhile, viewers would see high Like counts on friends’ or influencers’ posts, compare those to their own smaller Like counts, and feel ashamed or inadequate.

Putting an end to the popularity contest might lead people to share more unconventional, silly or artsy posts regardless of their public reception. That could make Instagram’s content more diverse and much more interesting over time versus an increasingly stale aesthetic of perfection. 

And Instagram isn’t the only company that’s attempting to remove publicly available engagement metrics from their platform. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all experimented with removing engagement metrics from their own platforms. 

It’s still too early to gauge whether social media de-metrication improves a user’s mental health or the quality of online discourse. But I think it’s worth asking ourselves how much we’re letting social media influence our lives and our mental health….. And if we should be able to regulate this ourselves or if we really do need the platforms to step in and try to regulate this for us.

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