And today in one of the bigger shake-ups in the social media landscape we’ve seen recently, Instagram will start testing private “like” counts later this week. The test, which was announced during Instagram’s keynote presentation on Tuesday and will occur only in Canada, will remove the total like count on photos and videos in your Feed, on Permalink pages, and in your Profile. The idea behind the test, according to Instagram, is “because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.” It’s a bold move, given that audience engagement is essentially to the continued success of any social media service; however, it might be a welcome change for some users.
The ability to “like” posts has been part of Instagram since the beginning. As then-CEO and co-founder Kevin Systrom said to Recode in 2017, on “Day One,” the app was “a combination of Hipstamatic, Twitter, [and] some stuff from Facebook like the ‘Like button.’” When asked about the similarities between Instagram’s more recent features and other social media apps like Snapchat, Systrom noted, “You can trace the roots of every feature anyone has in their app, somewhere in the history of technology.” Indeed, likes are one of the primary forms of engagement on the vast majority of social media apps and services: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, and many, many more all have some form of the feature.
But there’s a downside to likes, too. It’s not uncommon for users to get so preoccupied with the number of likes a post gets that we think of nothing else, reducing our lives down to curated moments whose value is only determined by the amount of “internet points” arbitrarily assigned to it. A number of studies conducted in recent years have concluded that, although there are ways in which social media can help our mental health, including allowing us to connect with others when we might otherwise be more isolated, there are also a wide variety of ways it can have a negative effect on our well-being: FOMO, sleep issues, and increases in depression and anxiety are among the issues associated with frequent social media use, according to one 2017 study.
Teens and younger users can be particularly vulnerable to the pitfalls of the like obsession. As detailed in reports from the Washington Post and Business Insider published in 2016, many teens regularly delete Instagram posts that haven’t garnered “enough” likes. One teen who spoke to WaPo and had 604 followers at the time only had 25 photos on her page due to the fact that she feels she has to delete “the ones that don’t get enough likes, don’t have good enough lighting, or don’t show the coolest moments in her life.” Another, speaking to Business Insider, gave numbers: “Usually if someone has over 500 followers and posts a picture, they expect it to bring in at least 60 likes,” he said. “Anything less usually means the picture will be deleted.”
(Obviously teens aren’t the only social media users who feel these pressures and delete posts with sub-optimal like numbers, but it’s worth noting that this particular demographic is especially prone to this kind of social media behavior.)
Making the like count private could go a long way towards curbing some of our worst social media habits. Without the number of likes easily visible, it might ease the pressure we feel to post “good” content — not because you won’t be able to see the number of likes your posts have, but because you won’t have to worry about what other people will think about the number of likes your posts have. (Remember, the way Instagram words it, the private like count just hides the number from your followers, not from you yourself.) What’s more, it might shift the focus of our posts somewhat: Rather than just “doing it for the ‘gram,” as they say, we might start y’know, doing it (whatever “it” is for you — eating something tasty, hiking a mountain at sunset, you name it) for the sake of doing it, and then sharing our experiences with our followers.
A private like count may also help address the issue of fake likes, which Instagram previously announced in November that they were going to be cracking down on moving forward. While it’s true that making the like count private won’t necessarily stop users from buying likes or inflating their numbers with third-party apps, it might make doing so less appealing; it’s sort of an “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” situation: If you buy a bunch of likes but no one else can see them, do they really matter?
What’s not immediately clear is whether the test is geared towards seeing what Instagram would be like if the platform removed the like feature entirely, or whether it’s more about figuring out whether users would be interested in having the choice to use an opt-in feature. Either way, though, it’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.
Again, the test will only be occurring in Canada — but stay tuned for the results. I’m sure many users participating in the test will have plenty to say about it as it goes on.