Instagram Is Hiding Like Counts: Here’s Why That’s a Good Thing

Have you heard that Instagram is hiding public like counts?

That’s right!

At this year’s annual F8 developer conference, Instagram revealed that it would start testing a new feature that hides public like counts from user posts. And indeed, this past May, the comapany started testing hidden likes only in Canada. The test must have been successful because, two months later, Instagram announced via a Tweet that users in several other countries would get access to hidden likes — namely, Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand.

This feature completely removes the total number of likes on photos and video views in Feed, Permalink pages and Profile; only the owner of the post still has the option of seeing the usernames of everyone who likes their post in a dedicated window.

Here’s what it looks like:

Speaking about the rationale behind hiding public like counts, Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri said the new feature is designed to minimize the stress of posting online, where users can fixate on how many likes their posts attract. “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 that they care about,” he said.

In the last few years, major social media companies have faced mounting criticism over the negative effects that social media can have on user well-being — especially when used passively. The problem with public emphasis of metrics such as likes is that it seems to incentivize negative behavior, leading users to chase engagement as a measure of self-worth and even subscribe to unethical growth practices to appear more influential than they actually are (think: bots and fake followers).

In response to this criticism, Mark Zuckerberg pledged in January 2018 that Facebook and its sister companies, including Instagram, would start focusing on “time well spent,” which he defined as “a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being.”

Hiding like counts marks the biggest step Facebook has taken so far towards fulfilling this commitment.

And though Instagram may be hard to imagine without likes for some people, this seemingly small change might have major positive implications on some of the most pressing problems that the social media ecosystem is currently facing.

So here are four reasons why hiding public like counts from Instagram is a good thing:

Instagram Is Hiding like Counts:
Here’s Why That’s a Good Thing

1. It might improve user well-being

What’s the first thing you did this morning?

Wait, let me guess! You checked your phone to see what’s new on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or some other social media app?

I thought so.

Don’t be embarrassed, though, you’re in good company. One Facebook-sponsored study found that as many as 79 percent of smartphone owners check their device within 15 minutes of waking up every morning. And according to Zuckerberg himself, the average user spends 50 minutes a day on the Facebook family of apps, including Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. Add to that time spent on Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, dating networks, and messaging apps like WhatsApp (also a Facebook company) and it’s clear that, for most of us, social media is not only the first and last thing we see each day, but also a huge time drain.

But when and how did we get so dependent on social media?

To answer this question, we first need to go back to 2007, the year the like button was invented.

Justin Rosenstein, one of the Facebook engineers who co-created this simple yet effective feature, recalls the like button becoming “wildly” successful almost instantaneously, with engagement soaring as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from giving or receiving social affirmation. The idea was soon copied by Twitter, with its heart-shaped “likes” (previously star-shaped “favorites”), Instagram, and countless other apps and websites.

But this exciting new feature, which was always meant to be just an easy way to “send little bits of positivity” across the platform with a single click, had some unintended consequences.

It became “a social-validation feedback loop”, as Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker, who left the company in 2005, described it.

What did Parker mean by this?

Well, biochemically speaking, the way a compulsive user gets hooked on social media is more or less the same as the way a drug addict gets hooked on habit-forming drugs or the way a gambler gets hooked on slot machines. In layman’s terms, compulsive use of social media interferes with the normal communication process in our brains by causing a dopamine surge that overruns our “reward pathways”, which are in charge of motivating our behavior. Dopamine motivates us to repeat actions that our brain perceives as beneficial to our survival, so it gets released as a “reward” when, for example, we eat something delicious or have a successful social interaction in real life.

Specifically, whenever we’re using one of our favorite social media networks, our dopamine system is being stimulated by a never-ending supply of “social rewards”, providing us with instant gratification. This, in turn, leads our brain to seek more of the same gratification by repeating the behavior it knows will lead to it (i.e., scrolling, liking, poking, tweeting, pinning, etc.).

Because of this vulnerability in the human brain’s “code”, both you and I have found ourselves stuck in a social media feedback loop before — dopamine gets us scrolling through our feeds, then we get “rewarded” for our scrolling at random intervals with those irresistible notifications, which in turn motivates us to continue scrolling until we get rewarded again. The trouble is, the longer you stay in this loop, the harder it becomes to resist it overtime — and this is how addiction is born.

In addition to addiction, other mental health problems have been found to be caused or exacerbated by social media. One report, for instance, surveyed 1,500 young Brits ages 14 to 24 who actively use apps such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat; the authors of the report found that all of these platforms had negative effects on user well-being — namely, in terms of anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and body image.

A different study from 2013 concluded that passive use of Facebook, in particular, can cause toxic envy, noting that “intensity of passive following is likely to reduce users’ life satisfaction in the long-run, as it triggers upward social comparison and invidious emotions.” Considering that Instagram is a platform where polished aesthetics and seemingly perfect lifestyles are the name of the game, these negative effects are likely to be even more pronounced than on Facebook.

However, it’s important to differentiate between passive and active use of social media. When used actively, social media might actually help us feel better. Specifically, one study found that receiving comments from close friends and family on Facebook boosted participants’ well-being, as opposed to liking (whether its giving or receiving likes) and passively looking at other people’s posts. (Go figure!)

Though this field of research is still young, this much is clear: Giving up on social media en masse would not solve anything, but fixing what’s broken is certainly a good place to start.

At the end of the day, social media is inherently neither good nor bad. All technology is merely a tool, and it’s our responsibility — both individually and collectively — to ensure we’re not using it to our detriment. By shifting the focus away from passive likes, the recent change in like counts will make it much easier for each of us to differentiate between “good” and “bad” use while helping us create healthier and more balanced personal relationships with technology.

Are you a compulsive social media user?

Try the Smartphone Compulsion Test and see if your use of technology is considered “compulsive”. The test has 15 multiple choice questions and has been developed by David Greenfield, a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

2. It will encourage creators to produce content that is genuinely authentic

In addition to mental health, the new change in Instagram like counts will affect the platform’s sizable creators population — specifically, in terms of authenticity of the content they put out.

This is because the change is happening in a context where perfectly curated feeds, which have become synonymous with Instagram, are now rapidly becoming passé. The new trend that has come to replace them is authenticity.

Or so it seems…

Today’s digital environment and demands of the market have created a generation of individuals trying to outdo each other at being unique and authentic. All the while, many of these people struggle with showing their true imperfect selves online due in large part to the prioritization of metrics such as likes and follower counts. So in reality, authenticity is more of an elusive ideal that a growing number of influencers strive towards rather than an actual modus operandi.

This begs the question: What does “authenticity” even mean in a world that values perfection — or rather the semblance of perfection?

It’s almost as though the new trend on Instagram is something closer to “fake authenticity”, which would perhaps be a more accurate phrase to describe what’s actually going on. One might interpret this oxymoron as representing a social media environment where it has become harder than ever to separate what’s real from what’s not. An environment that prioritizes trends over true depth — even when “depth” is the trend of the moment.

And this is precisely why Instagram’s decision to hide likes from posts is such an important one: It shifts the creators’ motivation from getting as many likes as possible to putting out something real.

This positive shift has, slowly but steadily, already started taking place. Take Reese Blutstein (@double3xposure), for example. She is a 22-year-old who has amassed more than 247,000 followers in just over a year by posting unfiltered, low-production photos of herself. “I’m not afraid to over-post,” she recently told The Atlantic. “I don’t think, ‘oh will this mess up how my feed looks.’ If I like an image I just post it.”

This kind of mindset illustrates how a younger generation of influencers, the so-called Gen Z, approaches social media. They don’t stress too much about applying a certain preset to achieve the perfect aesthetic, which is not necessarily true for Millennials, a.k.a. “first-generation” influencers.

Instagram is a powerful platform that now boasts over 1 billion users worldwide, which is no small number. And with such reach, it’s important that we think about what the content we put out for the world to see should be about. Should it be about beautiful but superficial aesthetics, cliché photos, predictable captions, and other content meant to help us “out-unique” each other? Or should it be about connecting with like-minded people, bringing awareness to important issues, sharing our creativity, growing a business or a brand, cherishing individuality, and inspiring and empowering others by living our own truths?

With Instagram likes hidden from public view, you won’t be able to see how many people have or haven’t liked a piece of content by another creator, which means that a like count won’t be there to make you think that their content is better than yours. In the same vein, if you don’t get as many likes as you think you should for something that you’ve posted, you will be less likely to delete that piece of content because you think fewer likes mean it’s not good enough.

Hiding likes will level the playing field in the long run by giving all creators the opportunity (and an incentive) to express themselves through their content in a way that is true to who they really are and what they stand for. More than that, it will help us move towards a new Instagram where the value of a piece of content won’t be measured by the amount of likes it gets but rather by the value it adds to someone’s life. Ultimately, instead of remaining a popularity contest, Instagram will slowly but surely become a more empowering platform where self-expression is not only encouraged, but also cherished.

Which takes us to the next point….

3. It will lead to more relevant KPIs for measuring success on Instagram

Another aspect of “the game” that will change for influencers across the spectrum is in terms of how they collaborate with brands.

Though considered vanity metrics, likes are what creators and brands often use to gauge general audience sentiment and overall level of engagement. So shifting the main focus from the number of likes will, on the one hand, change how brands perceive the value an influencer can bring to a partnership. On the other, influencers will have to find new, creative ways of communicating said value by focusing on the quality of both their content and organic engagement rather than impressive overall numbers such as likes and followers.

This is a major cause of worry for some influencers. However, all it really does is force everyone, including brands and influencers, to primarily focus on the quality of their content rather than vanity metrics.

Now that Instagram is putting high-quality content front and center, your main concern should be producing the best authentic content you can rather than chasing likes — whether you’re a food influencer, a fashion model, or the parent of an Insta-famous dog. This is what brands are going to gravitate towards when deciding whether someone is a good fit for a campaign, and so should you.

Truth be told, likes were never the best metric for determining the effectiveness of a campaign to begin with. Instead, consider looking into other metrics such as Stories engagement, follower growth over time, and attention metrics like video and Stories completion. These are much more precise at gauging engagement and demonstrating value than likes could ever be.

For influencers, in particular, the change in like counts presents a great opportunity to not only boast your quantitative results, but also share your personal story and everything else that sets you apart from your competition. While you should absolutely show off your social stats in your influencer media kit — from the size of your community and their demographics to your engagement rate — don’t forget to also demonstrate the quality of connections you have with your audience. This can be done by showing a sample of your comments section or the responses you get on your Stories. And of course, if you have any, testimonials from (happy) past clients are a great way to gain the trust of your future clients.

If you’re a business or a brand (and whether you’re looking for partnerships or not), don’t lose sight of the fact that social media was always meant to facilitate connections. The metric that matters the most at the end of the day is the quality of your community and the conversations you have with your fans, customers, readers, guests, patrons, and all others whom your brand or business serves. Nothing can replace customer relationships that you’ve nurtured over time and the brand loyalty that comes with it.

It’s also worth noting that Instagram recently redesigned the appearance of user profiles to make follower counts less prominent, as it shifts the attention from the top of the IG profile, where the number of followers is displayed, to the contact buttons. It wouldn’t be surprising if they decide to test hiding follower counts in the future, too.

4. The plight of inauthentic engagement

Though hiding like counts is mostly “about creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” it would not be surprising if another (unofficial) reason for this change was actually Instagram’s ongoing war on inauthentic engagement.

Something that’s been a long-standing open secret in influencer circles is the fact that there are numerous online services where Instagram users can buy likes, comments, video views, followers, and anything else they might need to boost engagement rates artificially. And now, the elephants in the room are getting hard to ignore — all the different pods, Telegram groups, automated bot services, and other facilitators and providers of inauthentic engagement.

Kent Heckel, who owns and maintains around 3,000 Instagram bots in his home-made bot farm, is one of those providers. He told BuzzFeed News last year that the platform’s failure to protect itself from manipulation has established an uneven playing field just asking to be exploited. “The damage is done on a very large level because nothing is genuine. It’s not just Russian bots and hackers, it’s 22-year-old kids in their dorm rooms and influencers and brands of all sizes,” he said.

But why do some Instagram users seek out inauthentic engagement?

There are as many answers to this question as there are “offenders”, but most commonly cited as the primary reason (and biggest nemesis) is the ever-changing algorithm. Some people believe that Instagram’s cryptic algorithm had negatively impacted their reach in a way that forces them to get “creative” about their growth. Then, there are those who believe that, in order to attract more followers when they’re just starting out on Instagram, they need to buy a couple of thousand fake followers as social proof. And of course, there’s also the societal pressure to appear popular and influential, as already discussed.

On the other side of the issue, Instagram has been very busy lately with cleaning the platform from these exact bots and preventing services such as those offered by Heckel from being able to deliver inauthentic engagement in the first place:

With the latest change in like counts, instead of continuing to fight the bots (and continuing to lose), Instagram is taking away all significance from the number of likes a post receives. And by rendering vanity metrics such as likes obsolete, they are essentially killing the need itself and thereby removing the lifeline from these rouge services.

Third-party tools that are official Facebook and Instagram partners, such as Iconosquare, are always going to be listed in Facebook’s Partner Directory. Whenever you’re not sure whether a service you’re using (or want to use) is an official partner, we recommend checking this resource to avoid getting shadowbanned. Better safe than sorry!

Rethinking social media

Over the past decade, social media has changed our world in countless ways — from how we do business to how we find love. But while it was becoming the behemoth that it is today, we haven’t quite had a chance to think about the impact it’s had on our relationships and our wellbeing.

Social media was never intended to control our lives and hinder our personal growth, but to be at our service as we continue to pursue the one thing that best defines what it means to be human — connection. By removing relevance from vanity metrics, as well as  facilitating honest conversations about their platforms’ potential negative effects, social media companies have a chance at alleviating some of the unintended negative consequences their platforms have had on our lives. In turn, this will help bring social media networks closer to their original purpose, which is to be enablers of meaningful connections.

The rationale behind hiding like counts on Instagram is part of a larger paradigm shift that is slowly but surely permeating the entire social media landscape — a shift in the way we think about the role that we want social media to play in our lives.

At its core, this is about recognizing and being mindful of the full scope of the role that social media has assumed in our lives, understanding how it affects our wellbeing, and identifying ways in which we can ensure it provides real value to us. In this sense, getting rid of like counts is a step in the right direction.

Over to you!
What do you think about Instagram’s decision to hide like counts?

Marko Petric: Marko Petric is a Social Media & PR Manager at Iconosquare. When he's not busy doing that, he's busy helping people and brands with social media marketing, content creation, and branding. Outside of work, Marko can usually be found listening to music, making travel plans, and strolling through the nearest forest pondering the meaning of life. Oh, and he also models sometimes.
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