Instagram Tests Hiding ‘Likes’ and Feelings are Mixed

Digitas

Instagram Tests Hiding ‘Likes’ and Feelings are Mixed

Allie Wassum

Key Takeaways:

  • Instagram is testing hiding public “Likes” on posts, allowing only the original publisher to view
  • While just a test for now, if rolled out, this change could encourage brands/influencers to focus more on quality content and less on hacks to garner more Likes
  • If rolled out, this will likely impact the Instagram algorithm and give users with fewer followers a greater chance to go “viral”

In response to growing concerns about social’s impact on mental wellness, Instagram has begun testing new features and adjustments to the user experience. The latest shift garnering attention is a country-by-country test to determine whether hiding ‘Like’ counts on in-feed posts alleviates pressure for its Like-hungry users. After testing in Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand, third-party researchers have found that hiding the likes has lowered engagement for some influencers in these countries. 

First, this is just a test and has only rolled out to a select number of users in the United States to date. Users will still be able to see the total Likes on their own content, thereby leaving no impact on measurement. 

Initial feedback from users, influencers and celebrities has been mixed – most calling out that Likes are the primary incentive for posting on the platform, others worry that this engagement could detract from the credibility their brands have worked so long to build. For the most part, end-users believe this is a positive change.  

Brief Background:

Instagram’s looking to “depressurize” its platform and detract from competition between users. This comes alongside other platforms making similar updates to create a safer, healthier environment, including the rollout of Twitter’s “author moderating replies” feature and Twitter and TikTok’s banning of political ads. According to Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, a lingering question about the platform has been “are we good for people?” 

To that end, Instagram is focused on reducing the amount of bullying that happens online and in part on Instagram. The platform is working toward becoming a safer space and this test seems to be an attempt to get closer to that core goal.

“The idea is to try and reduce anxiety and social comparisons, specifically with an eye towards young people,” says Mosseri.

Mosseri pledged that even if there are immediate negative effects to the business side of Instagram (i.e., reducing engagement) they are willing to do that if in the long-run it’s good for the user’s well-being, and puts pressure on other platforms to think this way. 

“We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.”

They’ve also rolled out a function called Restrict, which takes some power away from anyone using the platform to bully other users, and restricts some functions of the app for those accused of bullying. 

Implications for Users and Brands

Overall, should this test roll out officially, the impact on both mental health and brand engagement won’t be immediate. See below for our roundup of implications for users, brands and influencers. 

  1. Likely no impact to time spent in platform — While the point of this test is to decrease the link between social media use and depression, the biggest driver of time spent on the platform is the variable ratio reward built in. You never know how a post will perform and when it might blow up. This keeps you coming back to the platform to check on its performance. Since users will still be able to see their own Likes this function still exists and, as such, we’re not likely to see time spent with the app decreasing any time soon.
  2. Decreases negative comparison — As each user is still able to see his/her own metrics, they’re still able to associate Instagram likes with their own self-worth. However, not being able to see the amount of Likes a peer or influencer receives will alleviate the pressure to compare your own self-worth with someone else’s. 
  3. Decreases pressure to “Like” — Liking has become its own language for younger generations. It’s become a mandate to Like a friend’s post. If one of your friends doesn’t Like your photo, there’s a problem. Removing Likes will help users to be a lot more personal with what they choose to Like and ultimately make for a better feed experience for each individual user.
  4. Democratization of influence — In addition to follower counts, the amount of Likes on a photo has been the barometer for how influential a specific user is. By removing Likes, the cognitive bias associated with higher Like counts is removed, thereby removing the exponential nature of influencer posts and increasing anyone’s ability to break through. 
  5. Increases to social commerce and retail measurement — In the past year, adoption to social commerce has been on the rise as Instagram rolled out several new ways for brands and influencers to link directly to e-commerce platforms within and outside the platform. As the industry puts more emphasis on social commerce, it will become more common for marketers to stop relying on Likes and look beyond vanity metrics to more advanced measurement tools, including social commerce and in-store purchase behavior.
  6. Increases a brand’s likelihood to stand out — A brand’s overall content performance could ultimately increase with this change. Historically, posts that receive a large amount of “Likes” tend to encourage users to hop on the bandwagon and Like the post as well; Likes are used to gauge the popularity, or validity of a post. With this element hidden, users will have to determine whether they personally connect/agree with the post separate from knowing how others felt – providing even more validation to any action they take (i.e., sharing/DMing a post, completing a video, clicking through, tagging, etc.).
  7. Allows for greater experimentation — Without having to worry about public perception of posts with low Like counts, removing Likes will lessen the risk associated with testing out new ideas.  
  8. Quality of content even more important — We foresee a shift in how brands and influencers use Instagram, most likely stemming around the role of content being hero (quality) vs. posting simply “for the Like” (quantity/surface-level). Removal of public Like counts paves the way for more insightful content that provokes conversation and relationship building. Brands will need to really dig deep in order to form and nurture their relationship with followers by sharing content that they truly care about and connect with. 

Implications for influencers and influencer marketing

One of the major conversations around Instagram’s pilot is the impact it will have on influencers. Early tests show lower average engagement with posts and no impact on reach, though that’s likely to change.

  1. Lower engagement on influencer content & on the platform generally — In terms of early influencer-specific impact, a study was executed in countries where this feature was rolled out (by HypeAuditor reported by Social Media Today). The study found that influencers across follower counts almost unanimously saw their Like counts fall. Likes fell 3-15% in all the countries for influencers with 5,000 to 20,000 followers. The fact that Like counts dropped is not surprising, as it is predictable that influencers/brands will see a reduction in their Instagram engagement, but what’s important is that this wouldn't definitively impact reach, or other engagement metrics that feed the Instagram algorithm (it shouldn’t impact exposure of content overall). Also, if the same trends hold for all users, influencer content will most likely perform just as well as it does currently, since ordinary users’ Like count will drop at scale. 
  2. Potential to decrease average reach for popular brands and influencers — Instagram's algorithm prioritizes engagement when curating the posts that show up first in front of users, meaning that influencers will ultimately find their content gaining less reach than ever before.

Looking Ahead

As of now, this test isn’t currently impacting Instagram’s algorithm, measurement abilities or brand reach. However, a shift of this nature will eventually lead to changes in user behavior and ultimately the algorithm will have to shift to accommodate. More than ever, it’s important that brands stay on top of success metrics, so they can adjust how they prioritize content for Instagram and valuably measure engagement.  

Co-authored by Patrick Ferguson, Sr. Social Strategist & John Stier, Social Strategist

Allie Wassum

Allie Wassum

ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, SOCIAL STRATEGY

As an Associate Director in Social Strategy at Digitas, Allie Wassum works to uncover social trends, consult on creative messaging, and craft end-to-end social strategies for a major financial institution.

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