Facebook has been in the news again this week, with rumours of an experiment to remove the “like” count on posts. This was rolled out in seven countries on Instagram over the summer, causing uproar in the influencer world, and potentially Facebook could now follow suit.

The ‘like’ is a vanity metric, blamed for fuelling anxiety in young people. It’s easy to see why. Popularity, no matter how fleeting, makes us feel happy. It’s a small bump of endorphins, and just like sugar, highly addictive.

But if like most teens you spend a significant portion of your day pouring over images of lives better led, it’s easy to see how the culture of validation is extremely dangerous to fragile minds affecting teens’ perception of themselves, self esteem and relationships with the world around them.

Despite teenage suicide rates increasing, the social platforms have been slow to address the inconvenient truth, sidestepping accountability and paying lip service to the problem but doing little to tackle it. However, Instagram has recently started introducing new features to tackle online bullying using new tools and AI to restrict harmful comments.

When the ‘like’ feature was first removed on Instagram (trialled first in Canada in May) it caused upset in the influencer community, “likes” being currency in an economy worth $1.7billion. 

Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said the aim was to reduce the stress associated with chasing online popularity.

“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,” he explained at the time. 

Understandably, when a shift occurs in the landscape the knock on effects are felt more widely. Instagram insisted it was intended to give the platform more authenticity, and by removing likes people would use more creative self expression using the platform more spontaneously, not just at high traffic times. But influencers fought back saying that for many of them it was no longer viable to make a living out of their job, and that the increased time investment would devalue it.

It’s clear that Facebook has been trying to steer itself in a different direction, with new interactive features recently introduced. Is the demise of the “like” an acknowledgement that the vanity metric is a driver of anxiety? Or is it simply that there is too much content competing for the feed, and the goalposts have to be changed in the content bidding structure? Is a simple tweak in metrics going to make the social platforms more sociable? And will the removal of “likes” have adverse effects on advertising revenue? No wonder Facebook is exercising caution.

Instagram is notoriously hard to gain traction on, dialogue is fleeting and it’s hard to retain followers, so if likes were to disappear completely there may be greater potential for it to become a forum to exchange ideas, dialogue and even make friends.

Instagram said it was not yet ready to share the results of its experiment.  

“We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love”

Mia Garlick, Facebook Australia and New Zealand, Director of Policy.

Whether it will overtake Facebook as a hub for communities is unlikely, as people use Instagram mainly to scroll through beautiful images. But small changes can result in seismic shifts, so it will be interesting to watch how the story unfolds for a platform that continually introduces new features to get its users more engaged.