After reverse engineer Jane Wong recently discovered some test Facebook code, and Facebook confirmed that it was considering hiding “likes,” the popularity metric that they invented, they have now announced testing with a limited number of users in Australia.
They also recently began the same test on Facebook-owned platform Instagram, implementing it for “some” users across seven different countries. (SA was not included.)
According to Instagram head Adam Mosseri, the purpose was to foster “a less pressurized environment, where people feel comfortable expressing themselves.”
The feature wasn’t hidden completely, as users can still see the number of likes on their own posts, but nobody else would be able to see how many people had liked or reacted to a post.
Increasing Mental Health Concerns
The move comes out of apparently increasing public sentiment of the mental health implications of social media interactions, particularly on teenagers, where time spent on social media, and the anxiety or envy arising from self-comparison has been linked to depression.
For both platforms, the goal is to shift focus to the quality of the content, rather than its popularity, and they’re not the only ones either.
The CEO of Twitter has said that he wouldn’t include a “like” count if he redesigned the platform now, but although he has previously suggested removing the “like” button to try and “incentivise healthy conversation,” Twitter has denied that they have plans to do so.
Another platform that appears to be considering following suit is YouTube, who has already reduced one of its popularity metrics by beginning to roll out “abbreviated public subscriber counts.” (Although, honestly the abbreviations don’t make much difference.)
Transparency In Testing
While in principle supporting the idea though, some critics feel that the potential mental health implications of the change mean that the test is conducted more transparently.
Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Business Insider, “It’s a very interesting idea but it’s the kind of thing that falls into a grey area between ‘product’ and ‘health intervention’. These kinds of studies shouldn’t be done behind closed doors as the implications for social and individual well-being are potentially huge.”
According to a report in HuffPost, some of the people on Instagram who got the test have already reported positively on it, saying that it made the platform feel less like a popularity contest. (Some also reported that they were less likely to “like” something now, just because others had done so.)
On the other hand, influencers are apparently seeing a drastic reduction in the amount of reach their posts are getting, and many are concerned about the effect it will have on their business and brand deals.
Given the number of people who may evaluate their self-worth based on the number of likes they get, there may well be other mental health implications for this move. Although users will still be able to see who liked their post, this move might lead to lower numbers of likes overall, especially for influencers.
Of course, likes are only one metric by which the success of a post can be measured, so brands and advertisers aren’t yet too concerned about the proposed changes.
According to Mike Blake-Crawford of Social Chain, “it’s going to separate influencers who have trigger-happy followers versus the ones who have a real connection with their audience and have the trust element.”