Facebook recently announced at their annual developer conference, F8, that they are testing a version of Instagram that hides the number of likes that photos and videos receive. The test launched in Canada in May and has been expanded to include seven other countries in July, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand.

“We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people they care about,” Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, explained at the conference. “We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition, we want to make it a less pressurized environment.”

In theory, these changes should help people focus on true connection and sharing real moments instead of self-editing or comparing. And, this shift should also help brands focus on true business outcomes like sales versus a popularity metric. However, time will tell how easily people and brands can step away from a metric that Facebook trained them to get hooked on in the first place.

The Rush of Social Validation vs. Authenticity

Research shows that social media is addictive because of the dopamine rush that comes as people see likes and notifications come in. Interestingly, Instagram is not testing removing like notifications or the ability to see how many likes your own content gets. But it is removing the ability for others to see it.

When we did an informal pulse check with our Starcom network, they agreed the removal of the comparison felt healthier and meant they’d do less self-editing when posting content. They also said they would worry less about how many likes something gets or even deleting posts if they don’t hit a certain number.

While this change likely won’t bring sweeping authenticity across social media, it’s a step in the right direction.

Redefining Value and Gaining More Control of the Influencer Economy

While social media is still vastly popular, there has been a shift to more ephemeral content – like stories – where instead of posting an item that collects likes we collect attention in the moment. Increasingly what we value are the comments our content generates. We want our creations to inspire reposts from others and leap across platforms.

Follower counts and likes counts are losing favor as a trusted cultural metric of value as we all know they can be bought from influencers. Instead, we value how a given piece of content can generate conversation and attention. Instagram may be making this change just as the ‘like’ is starting to lose its value.

We predict that comments will be the next mark of popularity that people and influencers will try to collect. You can take away one thing, but people will find something else to validate and measure themselves against.  Comments can be much harder to monitor for sentiment and creates more potential for non-brand-safe discussion.  Removal of a clear visible metric for brands will also perpetuate Facebook’s desire to control visibility of data and deployment of dollars across their social empire.

Potential Implications for Brands

Instagram may be doing something for the good of the people just ahead of when they would have had to do it for themselves. Social media is a fluid thing. As people embrace ephemeral content, value creating conversation platforms must shift how they reflect those values.  Brands must navigate the interplay of how people wish to use platforms and how platforms wish to use their marketing budgets.  However, the next obvious place to look after ‘likes’ is ‘comments’ – and tracking sentiment, quality and quantity in comments will bring along evolving ways to work with social.

 Authors: Elle Radke, VP/Director, Starcom U.S. & Bohb Blair, Global Chief Experience Officer, Starcom Worldwide