NEW YORK, United States — The popularity of a social media post is typically judged by its number of likes. The thumb’s up button on Facebook, the upvote on Reddit, the favourite on Twitter; they indicate user interest, and they also help content travel, because usually, you like what your friends like.
This system on Instagram, however, could soon be turned on its head.
The social media platform began experimenting with hiding likes in Canada back in May, and last week rolled out the test to Japan, Italy, Ireland, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia. In those countries, users are now no longer able to see the number of likes or video views on other people’s posts.
Instagram posits that this shift will minimise the social pressures that come with social media. “We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” Instagram wrote in a tweet last week.
"We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get."
But it’s already raising anxiety among influencers and the fashion brands that advertise through them. Experts believe the move could nudge brands to spend more on ads and less on posts that feature influencers.
“Getting rid of likes is a big deal,” said Alessandro Bogliari, chief executive of the Influencer Marketing Factory. “There are pros and cons to the decision, but it has the potential to hurt the entire system.”
Marketing agencies and brands that analyse influencers look at several metrics, including likes, followers and comments, to measure the popularity of an influencer and how their audience reach can translate to sales. Bogliari said all metrics are important to consider because everyone’s audiences are different, and some followers prefer to like while others prefer to comment.
“With one less metric for engagement, I think it will be harder for influencers to be scouted,” he said. Because likes have always been an integral part of a social media presence, Bogliari believes influencers will likely start to leave Instagram and move to up-and-coming platforms like TikTok.
Voices from those in the space have already echoed this sentiment.
Adam Liaw, an Australian chef and food influencer with over 134,000 followers on Instagram tweeted that the move is a “huge mistake.”
Hiding the number of likes may encourage brands to lean away from working with influencers and focus more on paying for targeted ads, added Dan Goldstein, the president of digital marketing agency Page 1 Solutions. Instagram currently has 25 million Instagram business profiles, but only 2 million of them advertise on a monthly basis, according to Australian marketing site Mumbrella — a number that the Facebook-owned platform is keen on increasing.
“Getting rid of likes will make it harder for ads to travel,” Goldstein said. “This is basically going to force brands to opt for spending on ads over influencers because that’s a route they know will work, and will give them the numbers they want to see.”
In a statement emailed to BoF, a Facebook spokesperson said "by making the number of likes private, people will be able to focus more on the photos and videos posted in Feed, and that this will ultimately drive deeper engagement. We understand that likes are important for many creators, and while this test is in exploratory stages, we are thinking through ways for creators to communicate value to their partners.”
Joe Gagliese, the co-founder of influencer marketing agency Viral Nation, believes the move could also be hard on fashion brands that have looked to Instagram to grow their following.
“Likes have typically been a bragging right for fashion brands on Instagram, because it’s become a symbol of success,” Gagliese said. “The psychology of this is that consumers like posts that other people like.”
"Likes have typically been a bragging right for fashion brands on Instagram, because it’s become a symbol of success."
Gagliese also foresees the hiding of likes resulting in influencers and brands purchasing fake followers in order to boost their numbers that actually are visible. Accounts that have bought followers have tell-tale signs like engagement numbers that are off when comparing followers to likes; with the latter number gone, says Gagliese, the floodgates could open.
But Gagliese also sees the pivot away from likes as an opportunity. He believes Instagram engagement will eventually evolve into focusing on comments, which could provide more meaningful interactions between brands and customers. After all, the most liked photo of all time on Instagram was a picture of… an egg— a photo that was posted by a marketing company that figured out how to crack the Instagram algorithm.
The egg might have rendered more likes than Kylie Jenner, but its popularity proved that likes on Instagram don’t always go to the most interesting content.
Moving more towards comments could inspire work that emphasises quality over quantity, and create more authentic connections with audiences.
“I think this will implore people to ask followers to comment more, and that usually works in a brand’s favour,” he said. “A comment is more meaningful than a lazy like.”