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Instagram is hiding likes. You may be happier in the end

The social network is testing ways to improve your mental health.

Young man holds a smart device while using Instagram app

Instagram is testing a way to hide your likes and video views.

studioEAST/Getty Images

Lyndi Cohen's Instagram photos illustrate the power of healthy living. The Australian nutritionist features meals she's prepared for the week and moves gracefully through yoga poses. She also shares side-by-side bikini shots to show how glamorous photos on the social network diverge from real life. 

Still, the 29-year-old grapples with an unhealthy habit: obsessing over how many "likes" her Instagram photos receive.

The number of likes has prompted Cohen to question which photos or videos to share with her 99,700 followers. Even though she knows it's unhealthy, Cohen has compared herself to more-popular Instagram users.

"We can get addicted to chasing likes instead of chasing great content," she said.

Now Instagram is giving Cohen and other users a break from their fixation on likes. In a test that rolled out to more countries last month, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing service is hiding the number of likes and video views each post gets, so the rest of the world can't tell how popular it is. You'll still be able to see the likes and video views your posts have gotten, but the public won't. 

The move underscores how tech companies are thinking twice about features and products that can wreak havoc on your mental health. Twitter is exploring whether to put likes and retweets behind a user tap in an effort to make conversations easier to follow. Facebook, Apple and Google introduced tools last year to limit your screen time. In July, Pinterest, which scrapped its like button in 2017, released emotional well-being activities, such as deep-breathing exercises and practicing gratitude. Photo app VSCO, an Instagram competitor, doesn't publicly display the number of likes an image receives.

Hiding likes could alter what Instagram users decide to share on the platform and how they engage with other users. A Facebook spokesperson said Instagram launched the test to "remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive," allowing users to share "authentically and comfortably" on the site.

Earlier this year, a photo of an egg made headlines after it became the most liked photo in the social network's history. The popular image was then used to shine a spotlight on mental health.

Reducing the stress that comes with living online isn't simply about the health of users. Social media companies know that dialing down the pressure could be good for their businesses. After all, if users don't view social networks as positive places, it could make them wary about logging back on to the sites. 

Facebook said it's excited by the early test results. Interviews with a handful of people participating in the test suggest that some users think hiding likes will improve their mental health. Others worry it'll lead to a drop in user engagement, making it harder for them to promote products they market on Instagram. 

Turning social media on its head

likecounts-feed-2

The number of total likes is available only to the account owner.

Instagram

Hiding likes could change the way users behave on Instagram, just as the invention of the like button altered how people acted on Facebook and other sites. The like button, commonplace now, fueled the competitive nature of social media, transforming many sites into popularity contests. 

"The like button turned social media on its head," said Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at New York University. "Each like is a proxy for social approval, so having a post with lots of likes places you higher on the social status ladder than does having fewer or -- in the worst case, zero -- likes."

Alter, who's also the author of a book about the addictive nature of technology, says the success of the experiment depends on how Instagram decides what posts to show in a person's feed. The company's algorithm uses different factors, including engagement metrics such as how many likes a post receives, to decide what to show higher in a person's feed.

Hiding likes, he said, "lessens the public value" but users are still being privately rewarded for how many likes their posts attract.

Instagram tested hiding likes in Canada before expanding the experiment to Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand in July. Instagram declined to say if the test will be released in the US or globally to its more than 1 billion monthly active users. 

Kasey Lahue, a designer for Sour Bags & Totes, thinks Instagram should scrap the idea. Since the experiment started, Lahue has noticed a drop in engagement. Her Instagram photos used to typically get more than a dozen likes in the first 30 minutes. Now the 35-year-old Canadian says, she gets about eight likes after three hours. 

"It was meant to help people not focus on likes as much, but in my opinion has made it worse," Lahue said. "If they want to keep the idea, then maybe loosen that algorithm a little so small businesses don't fall into the abyss."

Instagram says it doesn't have plans to change the service's algorithm, which determines which posts it promotes, or get rid of likes and video views altogether. The company is also gathering feedback from businesses and creators about the experiment. 

Toronto-based Hashtag Paid surveyed nearly 200 Canadian creators from June 15 to July 1 after Instagram started hiding likes for some users in that country. The marketing company found that 51% of respondents no longer saw likes in their feeds. More than half of all respondents saw their likes fall, and 18% of creators who had their likes hidden saw a dramatic drop. Users also noticed a slowdown in follower growth and fewer comments on their posts.

Mellissah Smith, who runs a marketing firm in Australia and the US called Marketing Eye, says small and medium-size businesses have also seen engagement drop. If it keeps up, business owners, many of whom use Instagram to sell their own clothing or jewelry, may have to pay for more advertising to get their posts seen higher in people's feeds, she said. 

Something pleasurable

Seeing a drop in likes isn't surprising. A 2016 study by UCLA showed that teens were significantly more likely to like a photo if other people liked it too. The researchers attributed the behavior to peer pressure. Viewing photos with lots of likes also activated a region of a teenager's brain that's triggered when people experience something pleasurable, like eating chocolate or winning money, the researchers found. 

Alex Hayes, a surfer and creator, felt the pressure when he was a teenager to post images that attracted Instagram likes. The desire for likes was magnified four years ago, when he photoshopped a shark into a selfie as a joke and the image went viral.

Hayes, 21, says the itch for social approval has affected what he's posted. When Instagram users and celebrities posted photos from FaceApp, an app that alters your face to make you look older, Hayes jumped on the bandwagon envisioning the reaction he'd get.

"The funny thing is I did post it but deleted it because it just didn't suit my content," he said. "It's not me."

Removing likes will encourage people to pursue creativity, rather than chase approval, he says.

Cohen, the nutritionist, says she hasn't seen engagement drop since Instagram started the test. Hiding likes and video views has encouraged her to take more risks, such as posting raw video footage of a mannequin that's too small to fit the clothing it's wearing.

She already gave the test her Instagram stamp of approval.

"Goodbye to likes," Cohen posted. "Hello to mental health."

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