Instagram is testing a hidden like-count. Could that be a good thing?

The feature could create a drastically different social media landscape – but influencers may suffer. 

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After months of rumours, quiet testing, and whispers among the tech community, Instagram is now testing a feature that hides likes on individual photos – making them entirely invisible across the platform. 

The move is supposed to encourage users to focus on the content they share, rather than only posting pictures they think will do good numbers. It seems an obvious response to the backlash towards Instagram for the platform's negative effects on mental health. The app has been dubbed “the worst for young mental health” of all social media platforms, and many users have complained that it feeds into insecurity by encouraging people to constantly compare themselves with others. 

In a tweet explaining the move, Instagram wrote, “We want your friends to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get. You can still see your own likes by tapping on the list of people who've liked it, but your friends will not be able to see how many likes your post has received.” An accompanying image shows what the change looks like in-app: likes show up as “Liked by [username], [username], and others”. The current format displays exactly how many “others” there are, and plasters a full like-count underneath each image.

The new feature will mean users can only see if a post is liked by someone they follow, but not how many anonymous others have done the same.

Many users will welcome this change and be keen for it to become a permanent part of the platform’s structure. But for influencers, marketers, and brands looking for partnership, the announcement is a nightmare – one that will inevitably damage their cash flow.

Likes are a key part of how a sponsored post is valued. They provide a marker of engagement that indicates Instagrammers' level of influence and helps brands decide who to partner with – and how much to pay them. Facebook – Instagram’s owner – has assured brands that the business side of Instagram will not be affected, and that influencers will be able to share their engagement stats with companies looking to sponsor.

But even so, high like-counts on posts help influencers grow an audience. In many cases, influencers rely on that audience for their livelihood. With likes hidden from view, it’s easy to see how users could stop liking as much as they used to, which would harm audience growth and shrink engagement numbers.

The hidden-like feature also seems appealing to other platforms, too. BuzzFeed’s technology reporter, Alex Kantrowitz, pointed out last Friday that Twitter has also been exploring the option of hiding likes. The head of Instagram Adam Mosseri replied to Kantrowitz’s tweet saying, “We’ve tried similar ideas a few times over the years and never managed to get a version of filtered feeds to get much usage — competing with the convenience of scrolling is tough. That said Twitter is different in a number of ways, so glad they’re taking a swing.”

While this testing is a significant step, it’s still unclear whether or not Instagram will take the plunge and make the feature permanent. A global roll-out could take months, if it ever even happens at all. If hiding likes harms engagement, Instagram could decide to scrap the feature altogether. But the move shows Instagram is taking the hidden-like feature seriously. And its adoption could signal a domino-effect shift towards social media spaces that are friendlier to mental health.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.