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Will Instagram hiding ‘likes’ really change the affirmation culture it helped create?

The move is meant to help cut down on what's been dubbed "status anxiety."

Left: The current Instagram layout shows publicly how many "likes" a post gets. Right: Instagram is testing this new layout, which hides that total number of likes publicly. Users can still see in the back end how many likes their own post garnered.
Left: The current Instagram layout shows publicly how many "likes" a post gets. Right: Instagram is testing this new layout, which hides that total number of likes publicly. Users can still see in the back end how many likes their own post garnered.Read moreScreenshot via Instagram

The change seems small when stated in functional terms: A social media company is removing one number from its design.

But Instagram’s push to hide the number of “likes” a post gets is one of the biggest moves yet in a series of recent decisions by tech companies to deemphasize tying status to metrics on its platform and roll back the affirmation culture it helped create.

The Facebook-owned platform announced in April it would test hiding the total number of likes on posts in Canada. Users could still see how many likes their own posts received, but the counts on others’ pages would be hidden. Last week, the company announced it would run the same “test” in six more countries: Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand.

Instagram, which has more than a billion users worldwide, hasn’t announced a timeline for the United States, but observers say that based on how the platform has implemented the change in the past, expansion to the U.S. market is near.

So what’s the point?

Instagram is responding to criticisms that it created a pressurized and competitive environment that can lead to “status anxiety” — concern over what other people think of you — particularly for teenagers. In announcing the test this spring, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, said: “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 they care about.”

Research has connected social media use with increased levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness in teenagers, as well as problems with body image and self-worth.

Other platforms have worked to stem this effect, including YouTube, which this spring announced it will publicly display subscriber counts in rounded figures to limit users’ comparing fluctuating subscriber counts in real-time.

Twitter CEO and founder Jack Dorsey said in April that if he had the chance to start over, he wouldn’t emphasize follower and likes counts.

“I don’t think I would even create ‘like’ in the first place," Dorsey said, according to Quartz, "because it doesn’t actually push what we believe now to be the most important thing, which is healthy contribution back to the network.”

The expanded roll-out of a publicly like-less Instagram saw mixed reviews, but plenty of high-profile users praised the move. Australian singer and YouTuber Troye Sivan, who has more than 10 million followers on Instagram, tweeted “HALLELUJAH” and wrote he’s “happy that young people aren’t going to have to base their self worth/the worth of content they love from a number on a screen.”

Will this help with status anxiety?

Some say Instagram — in simply hiding likes counts — hasn’t gone far enough. The platform’s algorithm depends on likes, whether they are public or not. They just won’t be as visible, and image-obsessed users can still track their own likes with the same fervor they did before.

Colleen Reichmann, a Philadelphia-based psychologist who works primarily with high school and college-age patients, said she’s seen real-life examples of what the research shows: Users get a hit of dopamine to the brain (similar to some recreational drugs) when likes rack up on a post. But that reward is fleeting, and the crash that follows can impact self-worth.

“At the end of the day, it’s an image-based platform, and if the likes are available, you’re still getting your dopamine hits,” she said. “I still think the same problems will be there.”

>>READ MORE: Instagram and self-harm: 1 in 3 youth who see cutting images try it themselves, study suggests

Reichmann said hiding likes counts “could help a little bit” in terms of the comparative aspect of Instagram — you can imagine a scenario where a user might see that a friend posted something similar to them but got twice the number of likes, causing a self-esteem hit. But so much of that comparison, she said, comes from seeing others live what appear to be perfect lives, not necessarily the quantity of likes.

“It’s way more about the image they’re putting out," she said, “and a lot more to do with how much fun they’re having.”

What’s it mean for the influencers?

Instagram content creators often use detailed analytics to pitch brands and agencies on their worth. Some emphasize followers and likes counts. Others focus on engagement rates or on the number of users they convert to product-purchasers.

Because users still have access to their own likes counts, influencers in markets where this change is implemented probably won’t shift how they measure success.

Taylor Schear, CEO of Miami-based marketing firm Sheer Media, which works with clients in cities including Philadelphia, said brands cared about like counts several years ago when influencer marketing was new. But content creators have increasingly found ways to artificially inflate their like counts, and brands today care more about how many users an influencer sends to their site.

Because of that, she said, the change is great for brands that pay influencers to advertise their products or services because devaluing likes only acts to highlight "the people who actually have this organic reach.”

Katerina Seigel, a Philadelphia-based influencer whose content is focused on fashion and plant-based food, said the change puts the focus on the quality of the content, “not some silly internet popularity standard created by Instagram.” But, she said, it could make it more cumbersome for brands to quantify an ad’s success.

“I would be lying if I said it didn’t give me some stress," she said, “but I also believe things will change and adapt like they always do.”