On April 30, Instagram announced at the F8 developer conference that they would be testing a new feature that would hide users’ public like counts on videos and photos. The person who owns the account would still be able to see a list of the accounts that liked a post (not a number), but their followers wouldn’t. Instead, the photo would simply show that a post was liked by a few specific, named accounts “and others.”
Right now, Instagram is only testing this at the moment in Canada. As of this writing, there hasn’t been any follow-up as to whether the feature will be expanded, but the announcement has already caused quite a lot of buzz. Instagram says they want followers to “focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.”
Why Is Instagram Hiding Likes?
The main reason Instagram claims to be testing this feature is mental health. Much has been written about the one-upmanship that social media seems to bring out in us. Social media users only post the highlights of their life — never the lowlights — which leads followers to compare and despair when their lives are more complex and less interesting than the photos they see in their feed.
Quantifying that comparison makes it even more acute. I post a beautiful picture of my hike in the mountains and get 21 likes, but some “influencer” posts a picture of herself drinking a smoothie and gets 5,000? That’s a recipe for resentment and self-loathing, and many people have criticized the “compare-and-despair” environment of Instagram for fostering exactly that.
Another factor to consider is that likes themselves have been corrupted. There are dozens of sites out there offering paid likes — some from bots and some from real people — for as low as $70 for 10,000 likes. If likes aren’t an accurate indication of the engagement a photo is getting, then what’s the point?
In retrospect, this move shouldn’t come as a surprise. Instagram Stories is the platform’s newest feature, but it brings in 500 million users a day — all without an external like count. The Stories feature was created to create a “less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” in the first place, so this test makes sense as an extension of that goal.
What Effect Does Hiding the Like Count Have?
In an article on Huffington Post Canada, an Instagram user named Sara Roberts talks about how the recent test has affected the way she uses the app.
“Personally, I love not seeing the like count,” she told HuffPost. “It feels a bit weird to say, but I’ve stopped comparing myself to bigger accounts. I’ve also been more personal with the things I actually like versus what everyone else is liking. This feels like more of what Instagram should be rather than an advertisement of ourselves on our page.”
Another user said that the test has completely changed the way he interacts with the app. He, too, had fallen into the trap of judging his self-worth by the number of likes he was getting, even deleting low-performing posts to keep his averages up.
Now, he’s been more carefree about posting, treating the app as a way to express himself to the world as he is — not a curated, polished version. He’s posting more often, spending more time on the app, and stressing less about the numbers.
What Does This Mean for Marketers?
This feature will take a long time to roll out, if it ever does, but imagine a world where Instagram likes aren’t quantified by anyone but Instagram itself. Users can’t see how many likes a post has, either on the front or back end.
Some marketers and small businesses are dreading this world. Small businesses, who rely on Facebook and Instagram for most of their marketing since they don’t have the budget for fancy websites and big campaigns, consider likes to be one of the most useful metrics they have.
The biggest issue is this: without likes, how will brands know what is working? A brand might post a few Instagram photos a day, then check the like count to see which photos are performing best. That information will help drive their strategy going forward.
In all likelihood, that ability won’t go away. Even if the average user can’t see the number of likes they’ve gotten, they can still see a list of the accounts that have liked a post. If Instagram’s API allows it, it should be trivially easy for tools like SproutSocial, Hubspot, Hootsuite, and Buffer to generate analytics from that list.
Where your strategy gets trickier is the use of influencers. We’ve talked before about the value of micro-influencers — mid-sized accounts with between 1000 and 10,000 followers. But if you can’t see how many likes a potential influencer is getting, how will you know whether to recruit them? Or how much to pay them?
On the other hand, some are even arguing that this will improve Instagram marketing. Remember, Instagram and Facebook will still have all the data they need on content engagement — they’ll be able to apply their algorithms to highlight popular content the same way they do now.
But without the outward validation that a like count offers, the incentive to fudge the numbers with clickbait, fake followers, and paid likes goes away. The interactions become more genuine, which makes them more useful to both Instagram and the account owners themselves.
The Bottom Line
In the end, it’s still in Instagram’s best interests to make money off their platform. Instagram brings in over $6 billion a year — over a quarter of Facebook’s ad revenue — and Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going to just throw that away.
Much like Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013 forced bad marketers to stop using cheap techniques like keyword stuffing, this update might do away with bots, fake followers, and purchased likes in favor of a more authentic Instagram experience. And if Instagram can transform into a platform that encourages real interactions between people, their friends, and the brands they care about, then we’re all for it.