A Tale of Two Users - How to Remove Likes on Facebook
December 14, 2019
For the past few months, Instagram has experimented with removing public like counters in various countries. A few weeks ago, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri announced that the tests will be moving to the United States – the final sign that Instagram may be leaning towards making this change for good. I’ve previously written that Facebook ought to remove the public counter for the good of the platform, but I think they are implementing this change incorrectly.
My friend Cem was selected for the test, this is what my profile looks like now
There are two types of users on Instagram – personal users and brands/influencers. While Facebook and Instagram’s growth historically has been in the personal category, the second has grown as the market for new organic users saturated. And even though they both us the exact same platform, their goals and incentives are quite different. Personal users engage with their friends and consume influencer/brand content, while influencers and brands create content to make money.
Since both user types have different goals, each change on the platform affects them differently. So when Facebook announces something as dramatic as removing the like counter, they would do well to consider the externalities of the policy.
Overall, I believe that removing the public like counter is a good thing for personal users. Over time, people have realized that post engagement can be used as a proxy for social status and have optimized accordingly. In my opinion, this has reduced peer-to-peer engagement and reduced the ‘fun’ feeling of Facebook (compare your posts and comments from 2010 to now!).
For Facebook, this adverse effect runs exactly counter to their mission statement:
to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.
While it may be initially unpopular, removing the public like counter removes a lot of this pressure. For the influencer or brand, however, removing the like counter is not a good thing. Both their follower count and engagement is extremely important for generating brand interest that translates into sponsorships. By removing the public like counter, Instagram will eliminate the most measurable engagement metric. For reasons that will be explained later, this is extremely important and hurts influencers.
It’s tempting to believe that Facebook simply missed this effect, but I believe they’re too smart to have completely missed the most obvious externality. Therefore, they’re at least aware that influencers would be hurt from this change. There are two possible reasons why Facebook would want to hurt influencers:
They know they will hurt them but have judged the pros of the change to outweigh the cons
Facebook is deliberately hurting the influencer market.
Adam Mosseri has publicly taken the stance that it’s the first option when he said, “We will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s well-being and health.” But Adam has every incentive to say this which is precisely why I doubt it’s the true reason. He can’t say Instagram wants to hurt influencers without causing mass panic, and it’s better for optics if Facebook is doing this purely to help users. My problem with the statement is it shouldn’t be an ‘either or.’ They don’t need to hurt influencers in order to help personal users, and I believe they know that.
If Facebook is deliberately hurting the influencer market, we have to ask ourselves why. Why would Facebook deliberately hurt the growing portion of their platform? Katherine Wu wrote a really interesting piece about this that I find very concinving. Essentially, influencers have created their own businesses on Instagram and are generating revenue from sponsorships. The problem for Instagram is that while they provide the platform, they don’t share in any of this revenue. This is a no-go for Facebook and they are taking steps to remedy it.
As mentioned earlier, removing public like counters eliminates the best public engagement metric we have. But as Katherine explains, it probably wasn’t the best engagement metric anyways. Facebook undoubtedly tracks the ROI of advertisements much more closely, but they do it privately. By removing the public like counter, brands will be forced to turn to Instagram. Instagram then captures their portion of the pie by helping advertisers source influencers. Furthermore, this change will likely decrease overall engagement, which makes efficient campaigns even more important.
If this is Facebook’s real plan, it only works if Instagram owns people’s followers. It’s pretty easy to see why they might beleive they do - the algorithm governing the newsfeed and discovery page can always be altered to favor Instagram-friendly outputs (something that Ben Thompson has warned us about with platforms).
The problem is Instagram does not own a person’s entire platform. Unlike Apple, Facebook does not own the core app ecosystem. Apple controls their ecosystem through the app store - you cannot publish an app without their explicit approval. And because iPhones are the hardware through which you can access other platforms and aggregators, they have the final say. Instagram/Facebook run on top of these platforms, so they do not have this luxury.
So while Facebook owns the newsfeed, they do not own a person’s followers.
The most successful influencers online create personas that extend beyond any one social media platform. This becomes obvious when we look at more established creator platforms like YouTube, Twitch, etc. Fortnite star streamer Ninja reportedly made $10 million a year streaming on Twitch, but he was recently paid an undisclosed amount by Microsoft’s streaming service Mixer to switch platforms. There are no official details on the amount paid, but other streamers have estimated his contract was worth anywhere from $25 to $100 million.
And while Ninja’s personal value is unusual, his follower behavior is not. He continues to break records on Mixer because his followers have made the shift with him. Fans communicate with creators through in-platform chat programs, donations, and social media. Because of this, streamers are able to create a sense of community that follows them from the streaming platform to other forms of social media. Ninja currently has 14.9m Instagram followers, 5.3m twitter followers, and 22.3m followers on YouTube.
Ultimately, influencers or streamers create value on whatever platform they are on. They bring in the viewers that ultimately bring in advertisers. Microsoft and other brands have realized this and instead of attempting to wrest power from the creator, they lean into it. Instagram should be creating reasons for creators to stay instead of giving them reasons to leave. How do they do that? Influencers are on the platform to make money, help them make more money.
There are a few cut and dry solutions that already exist. Super apps like WeChat in China allow for users to buy merchandise in-app. Users can live-stream releases of new products and viewers can buy the advertised item within five taps in-app. I’m really surprised this isn’t an avenue that Facebook isn’t exploring more aggressively with their recent announcement of Facebook pay and their focus on Libra.
You can easily set up a WeChat shop easily where users can buy your product in one click
It’s understandable that Instagram would want a cut of the revenue generated on the platform, so they could charge a small service fee on every transaction. This puts the burden on the consumer instead of the creator, and would give influencers a reason to double down on the platform.
Thus we return to the original two considerations. Does Facebook know they are going to harm influencers and are influencers the collateral damage necessary to improve the platform? Or are they being deliberately harmed? I believe Facebook can generate additional revenue and protect users at the same time. They just need to change how they’re implementing the removal of like counters.
Just like in my original article, I propose that Facebook distinguish between two different types of accounts – public and private. Accounts are private by default, but can apply to become public in a similar process to verified accounts today. Private accounts will no longer have the like counter, but public accounts will.
Opponents of this idea will point out that this would centralize a lot of the power in Facebook’s hands, but I believe they have the power anyways. This is not a question of giving or taking power from Instagram, but creating a solution that works best for all users. This is a compromise that I believe provides the intended benefit without hurting the secondary base of users (unless Facebook intends to hurt the influencers, which as mentioned above I believe is a mistake).
If Facebook is actually getting rid of the public like counter for the good of users, I applaud them for trying to do the right thing. It’s also quite brave - but just because it’s brave does not mean it needs to be stupid. There are more elegant solutions than removing the counter for all accounts, and I believe bifurcating account designations is just one of many better options. That is, of course, if they’re doing this purely for the benefit of the users. If not, well, that’s a whole different story altogether.