Instagram's hidden like counts test has been a source of much debate since the platform first announced the trial back in April last year.
Why would Instagram do this? What will the impacts be on measurement? Will it cause people to post more or less as a result?
Thus far, Instagram hasn't provided many answers, but this week, we got a little more insight into the thinking behind the test, and its current impacts, via Vishal Shah, Instagram's VP of Product, who took part in an interview on 'The Social Media Geekout' podcast, which is hosted by social media expert Matt Navarra.
The interview is well worth a listen for anyone looking to get a better understanding of Instagram's internal thinking, on many aspects, but on the hidden like counts test specifically, Shah provides an overview, and some explanations to help clarify where they're at.
Shah first notes that the origin of the hidden like count test came from internal feedback from its various teams.
"This one came from the team that works on interactions and feed, so this team is incentivized to try to drive more likes [and] more comments, but in all of their user research, they heard so loud and clear that people felt like the public like count was a very high area of pressure for them when they produce content on Instagram […] the act of expression itself is what we cared about, not the validation, or perceived validation, that a public like count gets people."
Shah says that when Instagram was first launched, a public Like count made sense (“that was sort of a norm at the time”), but now, particularly when you consider the rise of the Stories format, public engagement metrics are no longer the things that drive behavior.
“If people were deleting the stuff that they posted to feed because they felt like they were competing with themselves [or] they were competing with public figures and celebrities and influencers that they felt they could never be on an even playing field, we thought this was one of the most effective ways to even that playing field and remove some of that pressure for performing.”
Shah says this is one of the biggest changes that they have ever sought to make, and the reason that it’s taking so long to test is because Instagram's internal team needs more time to be able to measure the true impact of the update before moving ahead. With such a significant change, Shah says, some shifts in behavior will occur in the short-term, but to really understand the behavioral effects, you need a longer time frame to see whether it’s actually altering usage.
And while he doesn't go into depth about the results they've seen thus far, Shah does provide this little indicator of what's happening:
“We knew going into this that we would likely have to trade-off some amount of engagement to do this work, and we are very comfortable doing that if in the end it makes people more comfortable expressing themselves and sharing on Instagram.”
That would likely suggest that they are seeing a reduction in post engagement in regions where like counts have been removed.
That test is confined to influencers only, but based on Shah's comments, this may well be indicative of the broader trends - that people are, in fact, seeing less engagement on their posts, overall, as a result of like counts being removed.
What Shah doesn't note, however, is how Instagram is measuring the relative success, or not, of the test.
How will Instagram decide if it's ultimately a success or a failure, and what metrics is it looking to improve as a result of the trial?
If there's a reduction in the amount of people deleting their posts, is that an indicator of success?
One recent report suggested that the actual aim of Instagram's hidden likes test is less about user wellbeing, as such, and more about getting users to post more often. CNBC reported last month that, according to three former Instagram employees, internal research at the company suggested that hiding like counts would "increase the number of posts people make to the service, by making them feel less self-conscious when their posts don’t get much engagement".
That makes some sense, and as a side benefit, maybe it also reduces that performance pressure which Instagram is using as the main impetus for the change. Less pressure, more content - Instagram wins in the long term, and in that sense, it's possible that increased post frequency per user is the key metric that Instagram is looking at in order to measure the ultimate success or failure of the trial.
Shah says they haven't made a decision at this stage as to whether the test will be rolled out to all users, but he notes that they remain excited about the project, and that they will continue to push forward with the test.
In addition to this, Shah also discusses the development of Instagram’s ‘Threads’ messaging app, the expansion of messaging access to the desktop version, and the future of the app more broadly. Shah shares a lot of interesting notes – if you’re looking to get a better understanding of the platform and where it’s headed, you can (and should) check out the ‘Social Media Geekout’ podcast here.
So nothing concrete on the future of hidden like counts as yet, but it's interesting to consider what these insights mean for the current impacts, as well as the motivations behind the actual implementation and success of the test.