- The popularity metrics that define social media may be dead.
- Facebook is experimenting with hiding the public “like” number that appears beneath people’s posts. The reverse engineer Jane Wong originally discovered the testing in Facebook’s code, and the company confirmed it’s considering removing like counts.
- That came after Facebook decided to hide likes on Instagram for users in some markets. Google’s YouTube will also stop showing precise subscriber counts on channels starting this month.
- Both firms appear motivated by concerns for people’s mental well-being, trying to reduce competitive one-upsmanship on social media.
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Both Facebook and YouTube are edging away from the popularity metrics they invented.
Facebook is experimenting with hiding “like” counts, which appear beneath people’s photos and posts to the social network.
The reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong discovered this week by digging through Facebook’s code that it was experimenting with hiding like counts.
Instead of seeing an exact number of likes on someone else’s post, users would instead see whether one friend of theirs “and others” had liked it. The original poster would still be able to see who has liked the post.
Facebook is working to hide like counts, too!https://t.co/WnUrM12aZg
— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) September 2, 2019
A Facebook spokeswoman told Business Insider that the company was considering testing getting rid of like counts but that a trial hadn’t been rolled out to any users.
Facebook didn’t elaborate on the motivations behind such a test, but it’s already started rolling something similar out on Instagram.
In Instagram’s case the company’s logic was that public like counts might be contributing to a kind of digital one-upmanship on social media and making users feel bad.
The changes come after an extended conversation in the tech industry about the way social media and apps make people feel.
Numerous key former employees at both Facebook and Google have spoken out regretting the products they helped to create. Leah Pearlman, the woman who helped design Facebook’s “like” button, told The Ringer in 2017 that she noticed that constant notifications on social media made her feel bad. “Have you seen that episode of ‘Black Mirror’?” she said at the time. “I just watched that about a month ago, and that haunts me on a pretty regular basis. Because it’s not that far off.”
And Tristan Harris, a former designer at Google, has kickstarted an entire movement about digital addiction through his Time Well Spent movement.
But critics would like to see these design changes tested more transparently.
Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, said that while the idea of hiding like counts was interesting, the mental-health motivations meant it’s a test that shouldn’t be conducted privately.
“It’s a very interesting idea but it’s the kind of thing that falls into a grey area between ‘product’ and ‘health intervention,'” he told Business Insider in an email. “These kinds of studies shouldn’t be done behind closed doors as the implications for social and individual well-being are potentially huge.”
He added that this didn’t just mean releasing results. “I’d like to hear the plan ahead of time, including the methodology, goals, and criteria for success,” he wrote. “If a major drug company said they were going to change the labelling (or ingredients) of a pain killer but didn’t run a transparent clinical trial the public would rightly be sceptical of any claims. It’s easy to forget that the even small changes to a widely used platform might have a big impact. Given the stakes, companies like Facebook, Google, and the gaming companies should invite independent scrutiny for these kinds of well-meant interventions.”
YouTube is simultaneously softening one of its own popularity metrics this month.
The company announced in May that it would be rolling out “abbreviated public subscriber counts.” This means channels with big subscriber counts won’t display exact numbers.
YouTube’s reasoning was similarly centered on reducing competition between its users, specifically its creators.
Its most popular individual creator, PewDiePie, was recently at the centre of a months-long public subscriber battle with the Indian channel and record label T-Series. The two were neck and neck in terms of subscriber numbers thanks to a sustained campaign by PewDiePie’s fans, but the Indian channel won out and with 111 million subscribers is now the biggest channel on YouTube.
During the contest, however, multiple sites and YouTube channels had their own dedicated “sub count” tracking how each channel was racking up subscribers. Such tracking will no longer be possible under the changes.
“Beyond creating more consistency, this addresses creator concerns about stress and wellbeing, specifically around tracking public subscriber counts in real time,” YouTube wrote. “We hope this helps all creators focus on telling their story, and experience less pressure about the numbers.”
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