In early May, Instagram launched a new test where it would remove the total number of likes from a large amount of Canadian accounts. Photos and videos that showed up on a person’s main feed, profiles, and permalinked pages no longer listed how many people had doubled tapped a photo.
The company—which is owned by Facebook—didn’t disclose in its April 30 statement why it chose Canada for the controversial test. And as of this week, it has been rolled out in five more countries—Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand—still with no explanation.
The big question is why it’s running the test at all.
In its statement that accompanied the change, Instagram suggested that it was hiding likes in an effort to get people to focus on the photos and videos that were shared, instead of encouraging people to count up how many hearts it received. The platform has been criticized in the past for contributing to mental health problems, particularly among teens. Various studies have proven that Instagram scores particularly badly on causing sleep deprivation, inciting body image issues, and creating a fear of missing out. Instagram’s statement appears to tap into that anxiety, and positions the test as an attempt to take the social pressure off users—an admirable stance.
That aside, it’s important to dig a little deeper into the company’s possible motives from a business perspective.
Engagement—the amount of likes or comments that a person receives on a post—has been steadily dropping for the past three years on Instagram. Anecdotally, the move to hide the number of likes on posts has reduced that engagement further during the Canadian test. Engagement typically forms the backbone of a social media platform, and helps to elevate it among businesses and individuals willing to pay to promote their content. Deliberately attempting to lower those metrics is a questionable decision from a business standpoint—which implies that something else might be going on at Instagram.
The platform is throwing itself into ecommerce. Just before it launched the Canadian test, Instagram implemented a new feature named Checkout. Checkout allows users to buy an item directly from a brand’s post without leaving the app. The photo can be tapped to see size or colour, and then individuals proceed to payment (where, incidentally, Instagram will save your name, email, billing information, and shipping address.) A few weeks later, another shopping feature was launched by the company, where individuals could tap on certain influencers’ pictures and buy directly from the app.
No official statement has been released to suggest that Instagram’s choice to test the removal of public likes and its pivot to ecommerce are linked. But that doesn’t mean the two aren’t connected.
By choosing six countries to test people’s behaviour when the like counts are removed, Instagram will gain huge amounts of data about what posts people really choose to engage with when social pressure is taken away. That knowledge is invaluable when running an ecommerce platform. Understanding which items and post aesthetics people naturally gravitate to would offer Instagram targeted insight into how best to drive people to products.
The timing, too, maps closely with big developments at Instagram’s parent company, Facebook. The tech giant has announced that it hopes to launch its new cryptocurrency, Libra, in 2020 (assuming it manages to surmount the regulatory hurdles). By using Instagram as an ecommerce tool, and potentially offering incentives for individuals to pay using Libra, the then-established Checkout feature would help drive adoption of Facebook’s new currency. Instagram would become a way to challenge Amazon’s dominance in retail—and offer a whole new data set for Facebook.
Don’t be surprised, then, if the controversial test of hiding likes ends with the platform restoring the numbers—a move that the platform has itself said is a possibility. After Instagram gains all the insight it needs about what people respond to without social bias, the platform can reintroduce likes as a social pressure to keep people commenting, tapping, and scrolling through its new ecommerce features.
Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays