Update – August 1, 2019: This post has been updated to include comments by Benjamin Grosser, creator of popular Demetricator plugins.
Instagram executives claim that they are testing hiding the like and view count from posts in order to create “a less pressurized environment” and improve the experience of users.
I believe the real reason has to do with surveillance capitalism: extracting more precious user data and increasing the time spent on the platform.
The Greatest Magicians
How do magicians pull off their great tricks? Through misdirection. The secret sauce of magic shows consists in the performer distracting and drawing the audience’s eyes to an object – while the magician carries out a key move to achieve the intended result, without being detected. British magician Nevil Maskelyne explained: “[Misdirection] consists admittedly in misleading the spectator’s senses, in order to screen from detection certain details for which secrecy is required.”
I would argue that Instagram’s – and its parent company Facebook’s – entire existence and raison d’être has been a masterful exercise in misdirection: making the audience believe that the platforms’ aim is to connect people… while they make billions extracting data from them and selling users’ attention to the highest bidder. This is why whenever Facebook or Instagram are in the news regarding a change to their platforms, my first reaction is always to wonder: “who really profits from this change?” The case of the recent test of hiding metrics is a perfect example of this logic. I believe the reason for it has little to do with goodwill and a lot to do with increasing revenues and data extraction.
Hiding likes “to create a less pressurized environment”?!?
Two weeks ago, Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri revealed that the popular social media platform was running tests in various countries, hiding the public like count from photos and the view count from videos. Speaking to Buzzfeed News, Mosseri said the goal of the experiment was to create a “less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” because “we do hear people worry about how many like counts they get”.
Every major publication covering this announcement took the statement at face value, without questioning it. Seasoned tech reporters inked op-ed pieces, discussing whether hiding visible metrics would have a positive effect on the mental health of Instagram users.
All these articles completely failed to take into account the economic imperative of Instagram. I didn’t find it all that surprising, considering that the reporters were for the most part men in their 30s and 40s, who have little idea of how teenagers and young adults – especially women – use the app.
I know something about the effects of social media platforms on users and the question of visible metrics. I have spent the past two years conducting research for a documentary on surveillance capitalism, the dark side of social media, and the quest by Big Tech to gather as much data as possible from users and nudge them towards specific behaviors, in order to ultimately create ideal consumers.
One of the first interviews I did for this documentary – called The Realists – is with artist and professor Ben Grosser, who created popular Facebook, Twitter and Instagram “Demetricators”: browser plugins that hide visible metrics from social media platforms. One of the most memorable things Grosser told me is that users, when visible metrics are hidden, pay a lot more attention to the content itself.
Motive 1: Increasing time spent on the platform
Typically when opening up a news or photo feed, one’s eyes tend to be drawn to numbers first. If a post has many likes, we tend to give more importance to it, to think of it as more worthy of our attention. If that number is hidden, we are more inclined to read a full post or study a photo more carefully. And I think that this ultimately drives users to spend more time on these platforms. Even two extra seconds spent examining a photo or a post can have a powerful cumulative effect, especially when it comes to investor reports (“users’ average time spent on the app increased this quarter!”).
Motive 2: The decreasing value of a “like”
The popular radio show This American Life a few years ago had an episode devoted to how teenage girls use Instagram: “Status Update.” Three friends – Julia (13 years old), Jane and Emma (14 years old) – revealed how they typically open up their Instagram feed and quickly scroll through it, double-tapping indiscriminately on all their friends’ photos, to show them support. Without really looking at the photos.
When I first listened to the episode, this behavior seemed extreme to me. But then, I started seeing it reproduced in real life, especially by other women I’d see around me: at the airport, in restaurants, while waiting in line at the supermarket… I’d venture to say that quick scrolling and mindless double-tapping has become almost normalized. And as a result, “Likes” have become almost insignificant. If anything – if we’re framing this in the logic of surveillance capitalism – they don’t provide any useful user data to Instagram and its parent company Facebook.
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on surveillance capitalism and the business model of Facebook. As Roger McNamee explains in his powerful New York Times op-ed “A Brief History of How Your Privacy Was Stolen”:
“Our digital avatars are used to predict our behavior, a valuable commodity that is then sold to the highest bidder.”
Remember that virtually ALL of Facebook’s revenues derive from the monetization of users’ personal data.
My theory: likes and especially “mindless likes” are seen as increasingly useless by Instagram and Facebook. You know what is a far superior tool that can increase time spent on the app and extract more useful data for advertisers? A comment. Because while it may take a nano-second to double-tap, writing a comment takes more time. And the language of a comment reveals so much about its author. AI can easily conduct text mining and sentiment analysis of comments and build richer profiles of the commenters… which can be ultimately used to serve them better ads (as in, ads for products that they’d be more likely to click on and buy). A like might not tell much about me. But the language and overall mood of a comment speaks volumes about me and my current state. And it drives more engagement.
I may be critical of certain tech reporters and their cluelessness about Instagram, but there is one writer who is consistently producing brilliant work, demystifying technological trends: Taylor Lorenz of The Atlantic. Lorenz predicted the increasing popularity of the comments section in an article published some 6 months ago: “How Comments Became the Best Part of Instagram.”
Motive 3: Less Anxiety about Performance
A third – albeit less impactful reason – for the test may be related to the comparison anxiety provoked by metrics. In conversations with dozens of teenagers and young adults – as research for my new documentary – I would often hear that young Instagram users are keenly aware of the performance of their posts. When they publish a photo, they typically check back within the first 10-15 minutes to see how many likes it has gotten. And if the number is deemed to be too low, users would often delete that photo. Many young adults are so wary of being judged by the performance of their photos that they prefer to lurk over publishing new posts. Hiding visible metrics would remove that performance and comparison anxiety, thus pushing users to post more often, as Mosseri had suggested. More frequent posts would result in more time spent on the app and more data to extract.
If you find these views a tad alarmist and pessimistic, I’d like to refer you to the Netflix documentary The Great Hack on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the weaponization of our personal data. The most striking moment for me was an exchange between former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser and writer Paul Hilder.
Brittany Kaiser: “I am about to draft some questions for a senator who will be able to ask them to Mark Zuckerberg in the Senate Judiciary Hearing on Tuesday: ‘How much of Facebook’s revenue comes directly from the monetization of users’ personal data?’”
Paul Hilder (laughing): “All of it.”
Brittany Kaiser: “Exactly.”
Update – August 1, 2019
Comments by Benjamin Grosser
After posting a link to this article on Twitter, I received some interesting comments by Benjamin Grosser – the aforementioned creator of popular “Demetricator” plugins and the second person I interviewed on camera for my upcoming documentary The Realists. His insights create a more complete picture of what Instagram may be after, so I thought it would be great to share them with you:
absolutely. note that Instagram’s promotional screenshots for their like count hiding test shows the comment metric remains visible right below. the result? comment count will become the new like metric. but to increment the comment count, one has to comment!
also, absent from the media’s fawning over IG’s test is any questioning of *what* IG is testing for. what’s a pass? or a fail? it’s the same as it always is: they’re testing how a change affects *engagement* (aka how much data users are giving to the platform).