If an Insta post is liked, but no one can see how much (e.g., by the tally of “likes” by fellow Instagram users prominently displayed at the bottom of each photo), does it even count as sponsored content?

It’s the spring 2019 equivalent of: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it even make a sound?”

The influencer world of sponsored posts and #ad-hash tagged brand-ambassador style posts was shook late last month with news that social media juggernaut Instagram be testing a new method of posting, in which the like-count will not be visible under posts, and will not be visible to followers in posters’ feeds. Account owners, however, will still be privy to the performance of their own posts.

For a medium that’s seen nearly unchecked astronomical growth (it had 30 million users in 2012, when Facebook purchased it; five years later it had 600 million) in recent years, this beta test could be a disruption exceeding the introduction of Stories.

But what instigated the platform to make this change?

Depressurizing a platform

While at first blush you might guess the move was made to combat a wave of fake “likes” and other falsified metrics of engagement produced by third-party “automated amplification services,” that purge to crack down on account-holders engaging in what Instagram called “inauthentic activity” was actually started back in November.

Instead, Instagram leadership is positing a more altruistic rationale behind the “likes” blackout: the mental health of its users.

According to multiple major news outlets, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, announced the test-run of this change April 30 at Facebook’s annual F8 development conference. According to The Washington Post, Mosseri said during his keynote address that, “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 that they care about,” adding that the idea was meant to make users’ time on the app “less pressurized.” The beta test was slated to occur for certain Canadian account holders, a transition that is currently underway.

Social media companies have come under fire in recent years for exacerbating social ills ranging from the moderation of hate speech and running rough-shod over personal privacy to contributing to poor attention spans and less-than-robust mental health, and leadership at companies like Facebook and Twitter are starting to respond. No doubt the top execs at Instagram were paying attention when a May 2017 study by the British public-health charity Royal Society for Public Health, “#StatusOfMind,” was published with this damning headline: “Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health.

While the announcement about taking away likes was one of several made during Mosseri’s address about key changes to the Instagram platform, it certainly garnered the most attention, and for good reason—for many influencers, likes equal engagement, and engagement leads to dollar signs.  

The bottom line

The possibility of subtracting likes from the engagement-metrics equation actually leaked before Mosseri’s F8 address, giving the influencer industry some time to react. While likes are just one measure of engagement that influencers can show to potential brand partners, it’s important to note that they aren’t even going completely away as a yardstick for audience engagement, as influencers will still have access to each of their own post’s numbers—they just won’t be publicly visible. Still, considering that some influencers may pull in something in the neighborhood of $15,000 a post (or, if you’re a Kardashian, a whopping six to seven figures a post) there is quite a bit on the line for those who make their living through the  platform.

“The ‘like’ is a powerful thing and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” said former reality-TV star Caila Quinn in a late-April interview with Allure magazine. “…To me, the algorithm already rewards creative content creators that engage with their audience, so having the ‘likes’ for everyone to see should be the reward for that hard work.”

While it’s too soon to significantly evaluate the effect of this change on influencer business, a more pertinent question might be how it also affects Instagram’s bottom line, especially as Mosseri unveiled e-commerce changes coming to the site. Several media experts spoke about the changes to the Canadian Broadcasting Company last week, with a fair amount of skepticism.

“It’s such an important point that you note this is a business, and ultimately everything is serving the bottom line,” Ramona Pringle, a Canadian digital journalist and director of the Transmedia Zone at Ryerson University told CBC News. “I think it’s always worth being a little bit skeptical. … There’s so many issues that are facing Facebook and Instagram at this stage, so they’re sort of identifying one where they can have a hero moment.”

Her colleague at BuzzFeed agreed, and acknowledged his own skepticism.

“They wouldn’t do this if they weren’t sure it wasn’t going to result in more likes, not fewer,” agreed Toronto-based Elamin Abdelmahmoud, a social media editor for Buzzfeed.

Want to see the changes for yourself? Daily Hive has collected screenshots from Canadian Instagram users, and you can see them here.