TORONTO — Instagram is launching a test in Canada this week that will make the “like” counts on posts private for some users in a purported effort to rein in competition for online clout, but experts caution the social media giant may have ulterior motives.
A spokesman for Facebook, which owns Instagram, says a select group of Canadian users will see the number of likes and video views removed from their Instagram feeds, permalink pages and profiles.
Users involved in the test will not be able to see like counts — normally displayed beneath every photo and video — on other people’s posts, the spokesman said. The users can still click to see a list of people who liked a post but not the total number, and will have the option of seeing how many likes their own uploads have received, he said.
He said the move, which was first announced at Facebook’s annual developer conference, F8, is meant to encourage users to focus on the photos and videos being shared, rather than how many likes they receive.
“We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition. We want to make it a less pressurized environment,” Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, told F8 on Tuesday.
“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.”
The Facebook spokesman would not reveal how many people will be part of the test group, but said it would be business as usual for all other Canadian users. He said the feature is being introduced in Canada due to the high level of engagement among users compared to other countries.
The spokesman described the trial run as exploratory, but noted that Instagram doesn’t always roll out features it tests.
Richard Lachman, a professor in Ryerson University’s school of media, expressed doubt that the change will stick or be spread more widely.
Like counts feed into the human desire for social acceptance, said Lachman, serving as a quantifiable measure of one’s status among their peers.
While it’s hard to put that digital genie back in the bottle, Lachman said Instagram’s willingness to experiment may be a response to the growing body of research on the damaging effects of social media metrics on mental health.
“There’s sort of this performative aspect to likes, to consuming one another’s content, and there’s negative effects on our psychological well-being,” he said. “It’s like we’re constantly checking, ‘Am I loved? Do you like me? How much do you like me?”’
But even if Instagram takes steps to mitigate that harm, Lachman said the company’s priorities will remain the same: to make the platform as “addictive” as possible in order to bolster its bottom line.
“They’re not trying to make it perfectly healthy. They’re trying to get enough hook that it’s not … getting users up in arms, but (the company) still has to make money.”
Jaigris Hodson, an associate professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria who researches digital media, said Instagram may even have a financial incentive for concealing like counts from users.
Many Instagram influencers have managed to convert the social media currency of likes into cash through sponsored posts and partnerships, Hodson said. If Instagram claims a monopoly over like counts, it can monetize that data to the detriment of entrepreneurs, artists and other “mom-and-pop influencers” looking to leverage their digital reach.
“(The company says) they want it to be all about the photo and video, and that seems disingenuous to me,” said Hodson. “There are the people for whom seeing the likes might matter for their careers, and now Facebook has completely taken that away.”