Is Instagram Strategically Withholding My Likes?

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A recent rumor claimed Instagram was withholding likes from users as a business strategy.

Instagram isn’t hiding your likes from you. Instagram isn’t hiding your likes from you. One more time, for the people standing in the back: Instagram isn’t hiding your likes from you.

But if you happened to catch a viral(ish) tweet last week with a screenshot from a piece from The Globe and Mail about the addictive powers of the smartphone, you might have believed otherwise. Matt Mayberry, head of business development at start-up Dopamine Labs, told the Canadian newspaper that Instagram is “tying in to your greatest insecurities” by stifling likes. “It’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding ‘likes’ from certain users,” The Globe and Mail reported, apparently paraphrasing Mayberry. “If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two.”

On its head, this sounds plausible. Almost logical. Facebook co-founder Sean Parker recently said that they built the platform to “exploit” human vulnerability. Facebook owns Instagram. Of course Instagram is doing the same thing by showing me my likes more slowly. What a brilliant, if possibly evil, idea. But this is a serious claim — one that is, frankly, a little surprising to people working around social platforms who’d never heard of this so-called “common knowledge.” On Twitter, Instagram’s CTO and co-founder Mike Krieger flatly denied that the company is withholding your likes. “To be super clear, we don’t do this,” he tweeted. Though, any notifications that aren’t instantaneous don’t lag intentionally, he said; instead, the platform tries to “strike a balance” between real-time alerts and not over-notifying users. “UI shows our latest/best count once you’re in the app.” An Instagram representative told Select All that Krieger’s tweets would be the company’s only statement on the matter.

But let’s assume that you don’t trust Krieger — after all, if you trusted Instagram, you wouldn’t have bought into the myth in the first place. Is it possible that Instagram is intentionally withholding your likes? We asked Gil Eyal, CEO and co-founder of HYPR Brands, a company that provides data analytics for social-media influencers. Eyal says there’s just no way, given the size of its user base, that Instagram is doing this. “When you build an app that is so robust, and you have so many notifications to send users, you have to steer things, because you can’t just send everything at once,” Eyal explained. For Instagram to be “so sophisticated that they know when every single user should receive a like notification to get them back looking at the platform” would be “beyond what they’re capable of.”

In a Twitter thread, software engineer Sarah Mei offered a more technical explanation of why Instagram likely isn’t squirreling away your likes. Her reasoning also points to Instagram’s hundreds of millions of users. “Updates to your likes may not appear immediately, depending on where you’re looking from. They may appear immediately for some people, but not for others,” Mei tweeted. “They may appear immediately for some geographies, but not for others. This is how caching works.”

Maybe the best evidence that Instagram isn’t doing this is, as Eyal pointed out, that the app is already “habit forming.” That is: Who needs cheap tricks like withholding likes when you’ve got sophisticated tricks like algorithms, notifications, and good old-fashioned FOMO? “They’re not a spammy app that needs these tactics to get users to log in repeatedly,” Eyal said.

TL;DR: If you’re not getting notifications that people are liking a photo you posted on Instagram, it’s not because Instagram is trying to play you. It’s just that people don’t like your photo.

Have a question or a theory about your favorite social-media site or smartphone app you’d like us to look into? Email madison.kircher@nymag.com.

Is Instagram Strategically Withholding My Likes?