Tech

Why Is Instagram Removing Likes? It's Probably Not To Help Your Mental Health

CEO Adam Mosseri has said they are happy to make decisions that hurt the business, but parent company Facebook has made it clear in the past that profit comes before users.
IMAGE JUSTIN SULLIVAN
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Of all the ills that Facebook has inflicted on the world (fake news; echo chambers; gender reveal party photo albums), it's interesting that the company has decided to take a firm stance over likes on Instagram. This week, the company launched a trial that hides likes for users in the US, a non-feature that it's already tested in Australia, Canada, Japan and a handful of other territories. If it works there—whatever 'works' means to Facebook—expect the change to roll out globally.

The decision to take away such a crude quantifier of popularity is, according to Instagram's Twitter account, so that users can "focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get."

"We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people's wellbeing and health," echoed Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri last week, at the Wired25 conference. All of which sounds admirable, especially given the 2017 study that found Instagram was the worst social network for your mental health, linking it to depression and anxiety.

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In one sense, hiding likes is a simple fix for what the platform is morphing into: a mood board of forced and orchestrated images that has prompted many people to abandon posting to the main feed entirely in favor of the like-free Instagram Stories. The pressure with posting is too great, and our feeds are overrun with photographs advertising a fraudulent life, complete with cookie-cutter captions like 'About Last Night' or 'Vitamin Sea'.

A screenshot of a user in Australia, where removing likes on Instagram posts has been trialed
Photo by INSTAGRAM.
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Take away likes and the clock turns back to a time when a photograph of a cup of coffee was just that, not a paid partnership with Kenco offering followers the chance to win a limited edition set of mugs. Think that sounds likely? Nope, us either. Showing off is in the DNA of Instagram, and hiding the number of fans won't make ab crack selfies, or infinity pools, any less miserable.

It also doesn't tackle the problem of toxic comments, an issue that plagues anyone—public figure or not—who hits a big enough follower count. As rapper Cardi B put it: "What makes you feel more insecure, getting no likes or people constantly giving opinions about you, your life and topics?"

Photo by INSTAGRAM.
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Perhaps most importantly, it begs the question: if Instagram's parent company, Facebook, is serious about undoing the negative effects of its platform, why is it so reluctant to police Facebook Live? The company waited nearly a year to add sufficient moderators to the feature after broadcasting footage of child abuse, rape, suicide, and murder.

Perhaps because—and we're heading out on a limb here—it's about cash, not your mental health. Every week, millions of dollars pass from brands to influencers, and Facebook doesn't get a cut. Far be it for us to doubt the morality of this otherwise exemplary company, but this oversight does sound like something they'd be more interested in righting than the wellbeing of their users.

If implemented globally, users would be able to see their own likes, but not that of others. Brands wouldn't be able to tell how popular a specific account is. Influencers could share those numbers themselves, but they could easily be doctored or manipulated. Step in Instagram Influence* (Name TBC), through which the platform connects brands with the well-performing and micro-targeted influencers who are best positioned to sell their products. In return, Instagram gets a cut.

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Photo by INSTAGRAM.

Call us cynical, but Facebook has been so reticent about no-brainers like protecting democracy, or shielding children from harmful content, that it seems an odd volte-face for it to suddenly sacrifice profit for happiness. It's not too big a stretch to imagine there's more going on here than the (long overdue) moral awakening of social media.

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And anyway, if Instagram really did care about improving the mental health of its users, wouldn't it just bring back the chronological feed?

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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