After Instagram tested making “likes” private in seven other countries this year, the company’s CEO Adam Mosseri announced that, starting this week, a “small portion” of its U.S. users will be rolled into that same trial. Those affected will still be able to see the number of likes on their own posts but no longer on others’ posts. Instead, like counts will be replaced by a mention of who liked it “and others.”
Instagram hopes that this new feature will help to “depressurize” the social media platform by reducing the inherent compulsion to compare likes and place the emphasis back on the actual content being shared. But here’s the thing: Social media anxiety is a far bigger and more complex issue than any one superficial change could address. And, in that regard, it feels as though this is a mere concession, allowing Instagram (and parent company Facebook) to say they’re taking measures to tackle a growing backlash around the addictive effects of social media.
I’m not sure what making like counts private will actually accomplish, because there are many other features and signals on Instagram that will continue to promote one’s public social status and foster the accumulation of “social currency.” To be blunt, doing this solves absolutely nothing and could even create more problems, including hurting Instagram influencers whose business models rely on likes. Why, then, is Instagram doing this?
Let me debunk the key talking points being used to tout the benefits of making like counts private:
Benefit #1: It will make posting on Instagram less of a competition
While hiding like counts removes one flavor of “score keeping” at first glance, it doesn’t really reduce the competitive (or comparative) culture that inherently exists within social media. Users will simply find other means to do so. All Instagram users will continue to be able to tap to see a list of who liked others’ posts, which is still a relative signal of post popularity. But more importantly, comment counts aren’t going away (yet) and I’d argue that this simply shifts the social currency scale to favor comments as the de facto public measure of content validation. And, of course, profile follower counts will also remain publicly visible, which epitomizes the “popularity contest.”
Benefit #2: It will allow people to post without pressure
A critique of social media is that some people feel shackled or beholden to “likes” as a measure of content quality. This manifests itself in either second-guessing something that you actually want to post or, worse, engineering your content to maximize the number of likes. While public like counts on Instagram might eventually go away for all users, people will still see the number of likes on their own posts. This means that the proxy measures for “good content” remain front and center for those who post and, hence, the same validation pressures that they bring.
Benefit #3: It will reduce social media anxiety
Our recently updated research study about Gen Z’s attitudes and behaviors toward social media reveals an increase in negative psychological impact: 48% of Gen Z says social media makes them feel anxious, sad or depressed. Not being able to see the like counts on other people’s posts isn’t going to solve this problem—especially when self-esteem, body image and #FOMO are key contributing factors to anxiety and depression. The irony is that the hope from Instagram’s test is that people will focus on the photos and videos that are shared versus how many likes they get, ignoring the fact that a big part of the problem is the content itself.
I’m reminded often that, ultimately, happiness comes from deep, meaningful connections with other people. At its best, social media helps to discover, develop, and nurture connections to create a sense of community and belonging. And at its worst? Well, we know all too well how social media can be weaponized for manipulation. But things like social status, comparison, wanting to feel validated—and the anxiety that comes with all of those things—are present in every network of people, whether online or #IRL. And, while I agree that the fabric of social media accelerates and amplifies these harmful stressors, removing like counts on Instagram doesn’t solve for any of this.