A couple of days ago, Instagram announced that it was expanding a controversial test to select users in a few of its global territories. The test is for Instagram to study the effect of hiding how many likes a photo has from everyone except the user who posted the photo.
The reasoning for this test is presented in fuzzy language. “We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” the company’s statement says. Why they want this is implied: Instagram, though tough to generalize, is more of a never-ending popularity contest now than it is a way to connect with people you actually know (or celebs you have an interest in).
The idea of deemphasizing metric such as like counts and video views is part of a wider push by large tech companies to make their products more quote-unquote ethical and less coldly motivated by quantitative metrics. Apple now has its Screen Time feature to show users how much time they spend on certain apps, and Twitter has considered hiding follower counts, for instance. All of this is presumably to reduce the constant impulsive refreshing that users do in exchange for the occasional dopamine hit of a meaningless number going up.
There might also be some ulterior motives. In the past few years, the Instagram product has undergone a substantial number of shifts as it has been brought more in line with the Facebook mother ship (a tension that forced Instagram’s co-founders out last year). The most significant change has been Instagram’s shift to an algorithmically sorted, rather than strictly chronological, timeline. The Explore page, Instagram’s version of a trending topics section, recommending posts and items from people that users don’t follow, became similarly algorithmically powered.
These types of changes have dramatically recontextualized what a like’s function is. In the beginning, a like was straightforward — it was a way to say “Hey, I saw this; cool” without everyone in the comments of a post repeating variations of the same idea over and over again. It was a tool for communicative efficiency.
Since then, the like has become an all-purpose signal that means many different things. Because Instagram uses the number of likes as one of its factors in ranking posts in each users feed, users aggressively encourage their followers to like (or “double tap”) photos so that they’ll be ranked higher in the sort. For popular influencers with millions of devoted fans, likes and similar metrics are directly tied to their income — the higher the metrics, the bigger the paycheck — so the like is arguably a form of indirect payment as well.
There is a pessimistic argument that hiding like counts makes it more difficult for influencers to monetize their Instagram accounts independent of Instagram, and give the company more power, though I think that theory holds little water given the fact that users in the test will still be able to see their own like metrics, but not those of others.
For popular users, the like is a tool for monetizing their success. For Instagram, the like is a signal to throw similar posts at users to increase time-on-site. For regular users, the like is not just a tool for saying something, it’s an indirect and mysterious force for changing what one sees every time they load up the app — and also sometimes still just a way of saying “cool.” It is almost entirely divorced from its initial function, and the like is now a magic all-purpose button. To that end, it makes sense that Instagram might want to rob the like of some of its power, given how many different functions it performs.