Once the primary currency of social media posts, "likes" on Instagram may soon be a thing of the past.
But the motivation goes beyond that. There's also a hypothesis within the company that hiding likes will increase the number of posts people make to the service, by making them feel less self-conscious when their posts don't get much engagement, three former employees told CNBC. These people asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss internal strategy at the company.
More posts means users spend more time on Instagram, and therefore grows the company's ability to show more ads. Instagram is a critical part of Facebook's future. It is the most popular social app among teens, and it has more than 1 billion monthly users. That includes 500 million daily users of the Stories feature that was introduced in 2016 to compete against a popular feature of the same name from Snapchat. Instagram is now valued by analysts at more than $100 billion, or about one-fifth of Facebook's total market cap.
Instagram declined comment on its motives for the change.
Ever since Facebook announced the experiment to remove like counts in April, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri has linked it to the social network's anti-cyberbullying efforts.
"It's because 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 they care about," Mosseri said at Facebook's F8 conference for developers in April. The next slide in the presentation included the words, "Leading the fight against online bullying."
Mosseri returned to the idea over and over again. At a Wired conference in October, he said, "The idea is to try and depressurize Instagram, to make it less of a competition, give people more space to focus on connecting with the people they love and the things that inspire them."
But Facebook's own research suggests hiding like counts could also increase the number of posts Instagram users make.
In recent years, as Instagram content became more polished and saturated with content from professional influencers, whom advertisers pay to promote particular products, the platform began to see more users delete or archive their original posts — especially posts that did not receive many likes, one of the former employees said.
Facebook's growth and data science teams developed a hypothesis that getting rid of likes would make users feel less self-conscious when their posts don't receive much engagement, spurring them to post more.
Facebook has always done research on likes, but the company began specifically experimenting with the idea of removing Instagram like counts in 2018, the people said. The experiment began as part of Instagram's wellness project before Mosseri took charge of the social network in October 2018, one of the sources said, but Mosseri has prioritized it. "I've been spending a lot of time on this personally," he said this October.
Under the changes, users will no longer be able to compare their posts' like counts to their peers, but they'll still receive a notification for each individual like. Those notifications could serve as an additional catalyst to get users to post more often.
In addition, people on Instagram tend to mimic the behaviors of their close friends and family, so getting a few users to start posting original content more frequently could create a viral effect, the former employees told CNBC.
Mosseri once briefly acknowledged removing likes could increase engagement, tweeting "It'll likely effect [sic] how much some people engage on Instagram, probably liking a bit less and posting a bit more..."
Outside experts agree the hypothesis has merit.
Removing likes takes away the peer pressure average users feel to post content that is as perfect as their most social-media savvy friend, a professional influencer or a celebrity, said Dylan Farella, director of social media at Talent Resources, a New York influencer marketing firm.
"There will be nothing discouraging them from posting more," Farella said.
Although removing likes could spur users to post more, it could also hurt influencers, one of the former employees said.
Celebrities and influencers benefit from what is referred to as "like momentum," meaning a user may like their post because they see that one of their friends has already liked it or because they see a high like count and join in.
Getting rid of this mob mentality could reduce the engagement influencers see on their content, thus reducing the amount they can charge brands for promoting their products.
Instagram does not want to drive away influencers, but as the influencer ecosystems on rivals Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter are much less developed, Facebook knows they have few other services to go to, one of the former employees said.