Instagram hiding its likes is no bad thing, but young people will find a way round it

I used to love Instagram. Amid the family politics and local gossip of Facebook and the unpredictable snark of Twitter, my little private Instagram account felt like a pleasant place to be. It’s still the only social media app I use with any regularity. But lately, I’ve been trying to extricate myself from its surprisingly tight grip. My muscle memory still goes to press the icon when I’m on the train, with no signal, but my brain has started to wonder why. Why keep checking this when it’s unlikely to have changed from when I last checked it, two minutes ago? And there’s a quieter voice too, more frank and ashamed: why am I still looking at something that has a tendency to make not just me, but plenty of people I know, feel bad about our own lives?

I say this as a relatively secure grownup. There is plenty of heartbreaking evidence that its idealised, often manipulated posts are having a far worse effect on people younger and more impressionable than me, and that’s to say nothing of its deliberately dark corners. Instagram is aware of – ironic, this – its image problem, and is trialling new ways of making it look more responsible. In Canada this week, the company will begin running tests that hide “likes” from everyone but the owner of an account. “We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” a spokesman said.

It all sounds benevolent in theory (and if there’s one thing big tech is known for, it’s all that concern for users’ welfare). Turning the act of liking something into a private gesture rather than a public spectacle makes it more personal and honest. It’s the return of the Facebook poke, only less problematically worded. It means we are not approving of what we think we should like, but what we do like.

If, for instance, Taylor Swift had a post with just two likes on it, you would wonder what terrible evil she had committed and be unlikely to follow suit, no matter how appealing the picture. If you couldn’t see whether anyone had liked it or not, and you genuinely thought her snap of, let’s say, kittens – it’s probably going to be kittens – was fabulous, you would give it a red heart. Removing just one point of comparison, of reach or status or popularity, particularly for users who use such comparisons as a stick to beat themselves with, has to be a step in the right direction.

It may not be a coincidence of timing that likes are under attack anyway. In April, the Information Commissioner’s Office proposed limiting likes for under-18s as part of its 16-rule code on age-appropriate online services, though this was less to do with any focus on the damaging effects of comparing numbers of likes, and more with preventing data collection and targeted advertising with regard to young users. Likes have become so devalued that a picture of an egg holds the record for winning the most.

Instagram stories have never shown public likes. On the other hand, among teenagers, who seem to be the intended audience for this change, fishing for likes is not a furtive activity. Familiar comments like “ops” and “returns” are outright requests for attention that are as normal to them as they are alien to anyone over 30.

I think back to a Buzzfeed article from 2016, a piece of dystopian nonfiction that was as mind-boggling as it was fun: My Little Sister Taught Me How To “Snapchat Like The Teens”. It was a different platform, but the same business, and it dealt with the same stakes. Numbers mattered above all else. If a post didn’t get enough attention, it would be deleted.

Trialling an Instagram without likes is a small gesture that is not nearly as dramatic as it sounds, and it’s one that weakly waves at the problem, rather than doing very much to tackle it. Even if taking away the public little red heart begins to dent this culture of validation, and it’s a big if, it is unlikely to be fatal to it. I suspect that users who need it will seek other ways of measuring their perceived importance – in comments, perhaps, using words or emojis that we don’t yet understand.