Instagram Is Hiding Likes to Protect Themselves, Not Their Users
It’s a move against falling engagement and an attempt to monopolize our data
Instagram has officially announced that they will begin hiding likes for some of its users in the USA.
Below you can see how users in other countries where this is tested (Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and more to come), currently experience it: You, as a user, will still be able to see who liked or viewed someone else’s post, but there won’t be a total number of likes displayed on the screen. You will still be able to tap into the list of people who liked and viewed it and count the numbers manually if you so choose.
Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, has been saying the following as the reason for the change:
“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” and “We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition.” — Adam Mosseri, Instagram CEO
In other words, they claim to be doing this to protect their users from the negative impact the app has on their mental health.
Although I don’t doubt that there are some well-intentioned people and initiatives at Instagram, I do doubt that Instagram has suddenly had a change of heart and decided to care for their user’s well-being instead of their bottom line.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand how Instagram works. It’s the reason I’ve been able to earn a living by growing accounts on the platform as well as writing about it, but throughout this process, two things have become clear to me:
- Instagram is a business. They exist to make money, and they make money by capturing our attention in order to sell it to advertisers.
- Every single feature and every single product decision Instagram makes is meant to do one thing: capture our attention and maximize their profits.
This is a hard-to-miss fact once you pay attention to their track record.
When our engagement with photos started declining, they came out with videos. When engagement declined with home-feed photos and videos, they copied Snapchat’s story feature. As we engaged more deeply with YouTube content, they released IGTV. They’ve launched interactive elements in stories, countdowns, and continue to tweak their algorithm in order to make sure you see the posts that capture your attention the most, first— all in an effort to keep us on the app for as long as possible, as frequently as possible, so we can be advertised to, not to protect our mental health.
So when Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri said, “We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s well-being and health” and began touting altruism, not their business, as the reason behind hiding likes, I got a bit suspicious.
What Other Reasons Does Instagram Have to Hide Likes From Its Users?
If Instagram wouldn’t be hiding likes to protect their users, what would they be hiding likes for? In my opinion, these are the two most likely culprits.
1. Instagram is hiding likes to protect their reputation and business
Data shows that since early 2019, average Instagram engagement has declined from 1.54% to 0.9%, but if you’ve been paying attention to your Instagram account you know this decline has been happening for a while now. How do we know? Because many of us measure like numbers to gauge content performance, and we’ve seen our numbers continue to decline over time.
If you’re used to using Instagram often, it’s not easy to stop using it, even after the perceived value of your time on the platform decreases.
Yes, by hiding likes Instagram, makes it less likely that we’ll compare our like numbers to others, but when it comes to feeling unhappy because of likes, comparing our numbers is not the only culprit. The decline in engagement also is. When you spend a lot of time creating content and interacting on Instagram, your like numbers are the best indicator of the perceived return in value you are getting for your time. If your like numbers decline, so does the perceived value of your time on the platform, and if you use Instagram often, this is likely to affect your mental health.
Instagram isn’t protecting its users, it’s protecting itself. By hiding likes, Instagram will help alleviate the negative backlash that comes from declining organic engagement on a platform over time as well as protect their reputation as Facebook’s more engaging social media platform (which is essential to their business now that FB is in clear decline). Not only that, but hiding likes also makes it more likely to get more users to pay for sponsored posts as we try to make up for the continuing decline in organic reach. That is great for business, not necessarily for our mental health.
In a recent study of 154K Instagram users, the influencer marketing platform HypeAuditor saw a decline in likes from at least 30% of their following coming from users in the regions in which Instagram’s hidden like counts test is currently running. If this trend continues when Instagram rolls out like hiding in the USA, we can expect more people to be less happy with their Instagram accounts as well as pay more for sponsored posts to make up for the decline in engagement.
2. Instagram is hiding likes to further monopolize our data
Likes being visible make Instagram less valuable as a business. Why? There are a lot of companies out there making money from analyzing, surfacing, and visualizing your Instagram likes data. By hiding likes, Instagram is making sure those companies can no longer capture that value and now sets itself up as the only owner and purveyor of our likes data. This makes them the only entity capable of charging people to access it. Monopolized access to our data is great for business, not necessarily for our mental health.
I’m not saying that I know the intentions of the people who make these choices at Instagram; I don’t. I’m also not saying that hiding likes will not reduce the platform’s negative impact on our mental health. It might, although I am doubtful about that (if it clearly positively impacted users, wouldn’t Instagram be touting studies about it? They’ve obviously tested it, a lot).
All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t so easily give Instagram a big ol’ pat on the back because they say they care about their users’ well-being and health. If they really did, there would be many other product features that would make a bigger impact on improving our mental health, other than hiding likes.
For example, in an effort to protect my mental health, I’ve muted all of the people I follow on my personal account. Unfortunately, Instagram still surfaces their stories at the top of my feed in an effort to try and get me to engage with them again.
If they truly cared about our mental health, that feature wouldn’t be aimed at getting you to engage again. If they truly cared about our well-being, they would want us to choose what content we saw, not what their algorithm knows will keep us on the app for longer, they would give us control over how they use our data and content, or they would give their users an equitable value exchange for the free content they use to monetize, among many other things.
Caring about your user's well-being isn’t just something you say, it’s something you practice. So far, Instagram and Facebook have a long history of not practicing it, and it’s important we remember that. Facebook is one of the most powerful organizations in the world, after all.