Twitter and Instagram Are Starting to Imagine a World Without ‘Likes’

May 1, 2019, 2:00 PM UTC

The “like” is one of the most valuable metrics on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, letting people know that their posts are appreciated while also helping those social media services better decide which content to show first, or which ads a user is most likely to click on.

They’ve also turned social media into a popularity contest, taking the focus away from higher-quality posts and conversations. “Likes” have been shown to light up the same reward circuitry in the brain as winning money or eating chocolate, according to a 2016 study from the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at University of California at Los Angeles

During a time when big tech is under scrutiny and is being forced to re-examine some of its core features, Twitter and Instagram have both shown they’re at least ready to consider a world without “likes.”

On stage at the TED conference in April, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that if he were to invent Twitter all over again, “I don’t think I would create ‘likes’ in the first place.” Dorsey also said he wouldn’t make the follower count as prominent.

Twitter’s new prototype app, twttr, which is designed for testing new features, explores the idea of making conversations easier. The app lets people read tweets in a tighter design without being distracted by metrics such as the number of likes and retweets—although users can make likes visible if they want.

The team at Instagram seems to be thinking about the social pressure that likes create, too. An internal prototype first discovered by developer Jane Manchun Wong on April 18 showed the number of likes stripped away from a post. Instead, the mockup highlighted the name of a friend who liked a post.

“We’re not testing this at the moment, but exploring ways to reduce pressure on Instagram is something we’re always thinking about,” an Instagram spokesperson told Fortune in an email.

On Facebook, users can not only like posts, but they can also express other emotions, including a “wow,” love, laughter, sadness, and anger. When asked if the company has been rethinking how likes are shown, a Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

There’s also the psychological effect of what happens when someone’s friends don’t like their posts.

When Jen Golbeck’s dog died a few years ago, she posted a few photos and a note on social media. She was surprised her friends didn’t immediately “like” her post.

It turns out, Golbeck, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies who studies social media, accidentally had the post set to private. But she said the experience demonstrated just how powerful social media likes are to everyone, whether they realize it or not.

“I don’t think it is bad or shallow. We want people to like us,” Golbeck told Fortune.

Social media companies adore likes just as much as users. “Likes” help inform the algorithm that decides which content is surfaced, which explains why many people still saw a photo of Oprah and her dogs from Easter Sunday toward the top of their feed several days later. They also help Instagram decide which ads to show. The more people like posts on Instagram, the better it is for companiesand Instagram’s ad revenue, making getting rid of the like a tough business decision.

Likes are powerful little rewards. In the case of the 2016 UCLA study, researchers asked 32 teenagers to submit photos. They were then shown photos on a screen for 12 minutes, along with a number of likes, which they later learned were artificial.

When the teens saw the photos they submitted had a high number of likes, researchers detected activity across wide regions of the brain, including the reward circuitry. When teens were asked to like photos, researchers also concluded they were influenced by the number of likes a photo already had.

“The like structure could potentially be a dangerous thing for regular users,” said Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. “There’s also the silence factor. These are social networks that have billed themselves as your closest friends, but when people don’t react or give you any affirmation,” it can effect how a person feels, he said.

Removing the like count could reduce social pressure, but Littau said likes serve a valuable purpose on social media sites, both for the algorithm that decides which posts and ads to surface, and creators, who want to know what their audience likes.

“Likes provide instant feedback about what is working and what is not. If you post on a particular subject, then that is a cue that this is what your audience wants more of,” Littau said.

While the discussion around the value of a “like” button is valid, Littau said the addictive property of “likes” can be attributed to notifications.

“Every time someone comments, posts, reacts, it’s another thing drawing you into the site,” he said.

For users who hang on every like, turning off notifications is one easy way to spend less time on social media. This can be done by going to “settings” in the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter apps. While Snapchat doesn’t run on likes, the app has a “do not disturb” mode that can be enabled for people hoping to resist the urge to constantly open the apps to see the latest.

Even if Instagram’s internal prototype was rolled out widely, or Twitter obliterated the like button, Golbeck said user behavior will adjust and find another way to express approval.

“From a user perspective, it is the social part of social media,” she said. “If I can’t like, maybe I’ll comment with a heart or thumbs up. It is such an ingrained part of these platforms that I don’t see it ever going away.”

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