Facebook's fear of government-imposed regulation and reducing the threat of being broken up are drivers for why Instagram is really hiding likes.


Instagram has caused a brouhaha by extending its tests on hiding likes. Mainstream media and trade press alike have piled in with conjecture pieces asking whether the move signals the end of influencer marketing. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t - but more on that in a moment. 

Most media got a second chance to prematurely sound influencer marketing’s death knell through the geographical extension. The tests are now being carried out in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand.

Instagram first ran tests on Canadian users’ accounts in May. I first wrote about the tests in mid-April referencing a find made by Jane Manchun Wong, the reverse engineer and tech blogger.  

Why Instagram is really hiding likes

So, why is Instagram really hiding likes? The company line is this will benefit mental health. “We want Instagram to be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves. We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love,” Facebook Australia and New Zealand director of policy Mia Garlick said at the announcement. 

Keeping policymakers onside

The reality may have a more commercial focus. Policymakers are ratcheting up pressure on the platform to take the mental health of its users more seriously. I suspect the move has more to do with keeping regulators onside. It is an attempt by a social media platform to demonstrate that it can still self-regulate. Further, the initiative is to show that Facebook does not need to be broken up into its constituent parts of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. 

A draft code of conduct from the UK’s data watchdog bans ‘likes’ on apps used by under 18 year olds. Similarly, the tone within the Online Harms White Paper drafted by the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport is that the social media platforms have marked their own homework for long enough. The document’s foreword penned by Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, Home Secretary explains:

“This White Paper therefore puts forward ambitious plans for a new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies, moving far beyond self-regulation. A new regulatory framework for online safety will make clear companies’ responsibilities to keep UK users, particularly children, safer online with the most robust action to counter illegal content and activity.”

Meaningful engagement

Social media ‘likes’ are the digital grunt of content engagement. Instagram will hope that hiding likes will encourage meaningful engagement. What’s that? Who knows exactly. In January last year Mark Zuckerberg coined the phrase ‘meaningful engagement’ without effectively explaining what it meant. Adam Mosseri published an article the same day to the Facebook newsroom embedding Zuckerberg’s post. 

At the time Mosseri was Facebook’s head of newsfeed. Today he is head of Instagram. It seems logical that Instagram’s leader would wish to continue what he started at Facebook and nurture more meaningful engagement.

To my mind, meaningful engagement means producing content which elicits a response; which nudges the viewer into doing something; which ignites a conversation or elicits a key insight; or, which ends in a purchase. Mosseri has been vocal about his designs for the billion monthly users of the photo & video sharing app to become window shoppers.

Push to Stories from posts

Zuckerberg mentioned Stories 71 times during Facebook’s third-quarter earnings call in October 2018. “People want to share in ways that don’t stick around permanently, and I want to be sure that we fully embrace this", he said. Embracing: yes. Monetising: absolutely. These ephemeral photo and video posts present another opportunity to advertise via pre and post roll without appearing to clog up the newsfeed.

Benefit to influencer marketing

Hiding likes will benefit influencer marketing. Anyone basing ROI on the vanity metrics of these digital grunts might do better to find an alternative career. Better metrics are the quality of the engagement, the level of interaction, the number of direct messages received by the creator resulting from a post, the number of ‘swipeups’, the number of times the post is saved. Ultimately measurement should be based on what happens next. What are the intent and better yet, the impact metrics produced. 

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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