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Instagram quantified our popularity, and now it wants to fix it

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Canadian users love hidden likes

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales

Instagram announced a fundamental change in April: users in Canada would begin testing a new feature that hides the number of likes their posts receive. The announcement was met with uncertainty over how it would change the way we use Instagram. But after a couple of months in testing, people appear to love it.

“Without seeing the likes count on feed posts now, I find myself more clearly focused on the actual quality of the content being posted,” user Matt Dusenbury tells me over Instagram direct message.

People in the test group can still see the number of likes their posts garnered, so long as they tap through it. Everyone else, however, cannot. Instagram says the goal is to make people “focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” and people are automatically included in the test. They can opt out, however. The company has yet to share any data on how effective hiding likes has been on people’s posting habits, but last week, it expanded the test to six more countries, suggesting encouraging results.

Emily Hall, another user, says she took a break from Instagram before the likes test rolled out. Now when she posts, she isn’t “obsessed with the number of likes I’d received,” she tells me over DM. “I think that’s because I knew that other people seeing my photos weren’t able to judge me preemptively on the number of likes I had on my photo or the likes versus the amount of time a photo had been posted.”

Both Hall and Dusenbury worry that users care more about the number at the bottom of a post than the post itself and say the hidden like count allows people to remain focused on the photos. “I’m less prone to pre-judge something by looking at the number of likes first and the actual photo second,” Dusenbury said. “From the opposite side, there’s less pressure to post the perfect pic in hopes of amazing Likes, which I find refreshing.”

The people I spoke with said they feel freer to post what they want, rather than what they know will get lots of likes. Another user, Nikola Lubura, says he used to shy away from posting photos of himself, but he’s more confident now that he doesn’t worry about people seeing his like count. “Now I don’t focus on the number but the people,” he says. “I look and see who liked my post and not how many. Before it felt like one huge competition and now it’s relaxing and freeing.”

For businesses or creators, the change hasn’t made much of a difference. Their accounts still give them highly detailed metrics, down to how many people unfollowed their account on a specific day. Plus, they can still see the number of likes on their own content and track it.

Brenda Cardenas, who makes augmented reality face filters for Instagram, says these metrics make her more aware of her content, much more than likes ever did. One week, she posted more personal content about her workload, and she began seeing higher-than-usual unfollows, which made her think her content was bad. In actuality, the photos performed well and had lots of likes. “Without seeing that info, and only seeing the unfollows, it left a bad feeling,” she says over DM. “Removing data is not the solution to removing pressure.”

Cardenas can still view her own likes, of course. But when she’s looking at her analytics, she focuses more on unfollows and her overall account than any individual post. As reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany points out in The Goods by Vox, hiding likes doesn’t doom influencers to a sponsor-free life. The data around likes and engagement still lives on the platform, just as it always has. The only difference is that users know their like count is hidden.

Likes have been integral to Instagram since the beginning; they’ve built people up and torn them down. They’ve served as a validator for content. Although hiding likes could have been an abrupt, unwelcome change, users appear to be loving it, and it might become one of the most profound changes the platform has made in years.