An Instagram without likes

A #paid research report

Instagram hiding likes

On April 30th, 2019, Instagram announced it was going to experiment with one of the biggest changes ever to the platform:

It was going to hide likes.

Instagram is never going to let the experiment’s data see the light of day, so we decided to run our own research study. Our goal was to learn how the platform would change, and what that change meant for the creators and influencers who depend on Instagram to make a living.  
In the following charts and graphs, you’ll learn as we did how impactful this change has been to the influencer ecosystem. 

You’ll see how hiding likes has altered key behaviors such as liking, commenting, and following.  But, more importantly, you’ll hear from the creators themselves and learn about the emotional repercussions this change has had on their lives.  

Demographics

46,401
Average follower counts
75%
25%
What did the creators experience?
Types of content the creators produce
How creators feel

Overall, creators are torn on an Instagram without likes

Most creators had an opinion on Instagram’s experiment hiding likes, but those being directly affected had more defined and extreme opinions.

35% of them either hated (19%) or disliked (16%) the ‘no likes’ experience thus far, compared to only 24% of users in the control group.  

Those with hidden likes were also much more likely to ‘love’ the experiment (23% vs. 14%).  

It’s important to note that even if a creator didn’t have their likes hidden, they have been affected by this experiment.

This is because for every creator in this study, 50% of their audience is having their likes hidden.

Effect on likes

Over half of creators have seen their likes fall. For a fifth—the change has been drastic  

For the majority of creators, Instagram’s experiment has caused a significant drop in a posts’ average number of likes.  

The simplest reason for this drop is that without visibility likes just don’t matter. 

As one creator put it:

“If likes aren't seen, people are less likely to 'like' thinking this is irrelevant.”
Comments per post

A third of creators are experiencing fewer comments on their posts

On Instagram, content is king, but three numbers dominate most people’s minds: likes, follower count, and comments.

Hiding likes has had a cascading effect on the other two big numbers. 

As the table shows,  about a third of creators are experiencing fewer comments on their post.  

Follower growth

Since likes started being hidden, follower growth has slowed for nearly 50% of Instagram creators

Creators were 223% more likely to agree than disagree with the belief that follower growth had slowed since the start of the experiment.  

This was true for both creators with their likes hidden and those experiencing Instagram as normal.

There is a relationship between Instagram’s big three numbers: likes, comments, and follower counts. Drastically change one, and the others are affected. 

As one astute creator put it:

“Since launch, I’ve seen extremely low engagement and interaction because posts are not gaining enough likes/comments to be deemed a ‘good post’ and therefore it does not get shown to many people.”
47%
of creators agree that follower growth has slowed
21%
of creators disagree that follower growth has slowed

The impact of hiding likes on mental health

"I feel more freedom to be creative," where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree
Freedom to be creative

Hiding likes has had the opposite effect on creativity — those without likes feel less freedom to be creative 

One of the expected benefits of this experiment was that creators would feel more free to be creative.

This hasn’t been the case. Creators who had their likes hidden were 162% more likely to disagree with the statement, “Since the start of the experiment, I feel more freedom to be creative.” 

"I feel less pressure to compete with other creators," where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree
Pressure to compete

Those with likes hidden did not feel the intended “less pressurized” environment 

Creators had a lot to say about the “pressurized environment”:

“Not as much pressure on likes but a shift to the number of impressions, which I love!”
“I feel less pressure. Hiding these kinds of stats is a breath of fresh air. I no longer compare myself to similar influencers and am able to focus more on my own, unique content versus what is trendy.”

But some weren’t as enthused:

“Removing likes hasn't changed the fact that people will always find ways to compare themselves to others. This is a band-aid solution that no one asked for.”

Interestingly, it was those who had their likes hidden who felt more pressure to compete. 45% of this group said they disagreed with the idea that the change helped them feel less pressured, compared to 33% of creators still seeing likes. 

"I am happier being a creator," where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree
Happiness

Removing likes has not improved happiness for two-thirds of creators

Most creators aren’t experiencing improved happiness with this change. 

Counter-intuitively, the strongest disagreement with the idea that the change increased happiness came from creators with their likes hidden.  

Then again, these creators have had something removed from them, while others still have it—so it’s not surprising they’d be more unhappy than their peers.   

Drive to post

Creators who have had their likes hidden are 2.5x more likely to report not posting as often 

One of the most disturbing results of the study was that creators who had their likes hidden were 2.5x more likely to strongly agree with the statement, ‘since the change, I post less often.’

However, this seems to be an ongoing trend as hiding likes is one of several changes that have frustrated creators, as described in the following quote:

“Since the change, I engage with the platform less, I post less, I feel worse about posting and do not enjoy creating content for it anymore. Seems like the focus/changes are always geared at ripping away more and more of our reach/influence with each change.”
25%
of creators with their likes hidden strongly agree that ‘they post less often’
11%
creators with likes visible strongly disagree that ‘they post less often’

How do their audiences feel?

Based on interactions with their followers, creators believed by a slim margin that more people were enjoying the change than disliking it  
27%
41%
32%
For creators who experienced hidden likes themselves, this wasn’t true. They reported more of their followers disliking the change than liking it
34%
36%
30%

Creator feedback and advice for Instagram

The benefits

Creators had a lot of nice things to say about the change

Every creator was asked to provide their thoughts on the best thing they’ve noticed since Instagram’s experiment started.  

60% of respondents had something positive to say about the experiment. The other 40% either said they did not have enough information, or only felt there were negative outcomes of the experiment.

Those who did see a benefit were very much in line with Instagram’s goals—less competition, and improved mental well-being. It was also great to see so many creators mention the freedom to be more creative (23%) and more authentic (16%).  

The other category had several unique insights, such as this change helping combat fake followers and giving a more personal experience.  

In the next section, we’ve highlighted some of the most telling quotes.  

The best thing about the experiment, in the creators’ own words:

“Less hesitation to post something off-brand.”

“Less comparison and competition. People sharing more because they want to, and not because they’re trying to keep up.”

“Not as much pressure on likes but a shift to the number of impressions, which I love!”

“I feel less pressure. Hiding these kinds of stats is a breath of fresh air. I no longer compare myself to similar influencers and am able to focus more on my own, unique content versus what is trendy.”

“I personally feel that I am more likely to honestly engage with content if I don't already have a quantified perception of how other people liked it.”

“It put the spotlight on the pressure social media brings.”

“Too many people rely on the numbers, when it usually ends up fostering unhealthy comparisons. I am all for quality over quantity. Creating quality and engaging content should be the focus.”

“More appreciation for people’s work and their humanity, rather than evaluating creators by the number of Likes they receive.”

“Not constantly checking up on engagement after posting to ensure I'm meeting standards.”

“Freedom and less pressure. I was amazed at how I much ‘likes’ affected my interactions/posting on Instagram. It's made the platform more enjoyable and creative.”

The issues

However, a lot of creators also took issue with the change

Every respondent was asked to provide their thoughts on the worst thing they’ve noticed since Instagram’s experiment started.  

62% of respondents noted at least one negative thing in the experiment. The other 38% either said they did not have enough information, or only felt there were positive outcomes to the experiment.

Unsurprisingly, the low engagement rates that resulted from removing likes was top of the list.  More interesting, however, was that 16% of creators already noted fewer brands reaching out, or being confused by the change.
  
8% of creators mentioned this change impacting just about every aspect of the platform and their business. We’ve termed this category “platform disrupted.”

In the next section, we’ve highlighted some of the most telling quotes.  

The worst thing about the experiment, in the creators’ own words:

“Less outreach from brands asking to collaborate.”

“Engagement slowed in general, wasn’t as motivated to post.”

“Fall in engagement, seemingly more changes to the algorithm at the same time. Sick of these tricks and constant changes. I engage with the platform less, I post less, I feel worse about posting and do not enjoy creating content for it anymore.”

“There are many. But perhaps the worst is the feeling that you are not allowed to applaud at the end of a performance. With the test, you can't be seen or heard if you want to support another artist's work.”

“Since launch, I’ve seen extremely low engagement and interaction because posts are not gaining enough likes/comments to be deemed a “good post” and therefore it does not get shown to many people.”

“My ‘likes’ going down by 50%.”

“I hate it, I have more engagement and the brands can’t see it.”

“Less new followers. Follower growth has slowed.”

“I found it hard to find out which content I should be posting. I liked seeing popular pictures and videos and taking inspiration from them for my own content. I'm a confident person and my happiness is not tied to likes.”

“Massive Drop in Engagement.”

“Being a content creator on Instagram is my full-time job and my stats are part of why I can negotiate contracts.”

“More advance notice and a better explanation than what I heard on the news, which was to stop bullying. The follower count is still there, so kids will just use that as their gauge now.”

“Have the proper algorithm set up to counteract any loss of potential visibility on the Instagram feed, since it’s going to change how we seen which posts go viral or not.” 

“Bringing back a chronological feed would be much more beneficial to user’s health re: pressure to stand out.” 

“Since individuals can still see their own likes, the psychological effects of it are still there. People will still check how many likes they get/didn't get, so hiding them from public view doesn't align with trying to do this for a ‘mental health’ reason.” 

“Have a plan to educate brands on why it's better to judge creator content based on its creativity, versus how many likes they get.” 

Improving Instagram

What would creators say to Instagram, if they had the chance?

Instagram’s experiment is running on a massive scale, and the scrolls and taps people put into the system will determine in large part whether Instagram will make this change platform wide.

That doesn’t really give people a voice, though, so we asked creators what they would say to Instagram about this change, if they were given the chance.

Some comments were just direct: “DO IT!” or “DON’T DO IT!” Many others were more nuanced. 

Creators touched not only on the issue of hidden likes, but also on other aspects of the platform, like the former chronological feed, which was an even bigger concern to many creators.

To the left, you can read some of the most interesting feedback creators had for Instagram.

Closing thoughts and recommended next steps

The future of Instagram’s likes is unfolding before our eyes.  Not even three months from launching its experiment in Canada, it has already expanded the test to 6 more countries.  

Instagram will need to be very deliberate in what it does next.  This isn’t a small change. The data shows that the potential impact of making this change permanent is huge.  

Instagram will be all over the numbers, but in the end, Instagram is a platform for people to share, be creative, and socialize. Given all we’ve learned in our study, we recommend the following actions for Instagram:

1

Pair qualitative feedback from everyday users with the quantitative data to better understand the mental health implications of this change and its knock-on effects.

2

Create forums and work collaboratively with creators and influencers to ensure their businesses thrive.

3

Educate brands on influencer/creator best practices and guide them so partnerships aren’t disrupted.

4

Improve communication practices so that people do not feel ambushed or unduly harmed by being forced into an experiment. 

Methodology & limitations

This study was run using #paid’s Canadian creator membership.  In total, 193 creators responded to the survey, roughly 5% of #paid’s Canadian creator community.  They offered their time, feedback, and insights for free.  The survey was released on June 15th, 2019 and collection finished on July 1st, 2019.

The scope of this study was limited to the impressions and feelings of the influencers and creators who use Instagram to make a living.  There is a massive range in the number of followers these influencers can have, from the low ten thousands up to numbers in the millions.  As such, in asking about the magnitude of changes we used Likert-like ranges of effect, from greatly decreased to greatly increased. 

We acknowledge a great decrease for one creator could be less substantial than a decrease for another.  For future researchers (and Instagram), we recommend building upon our research using percentages and absolute numbers.