In late April, at F8, Facebook’s annual event for developers, the company’s head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, announced some updates. Plenty of things would be added to the photo-sharing app: new ways to post Stories, new ways to buy stuff, an updated camera. Some things might also be taken away. Follower counts, Instagram’s main status marker, would become “much less prominent” in users’ profiles. “A bigger idea,” he told the gathered crowd, was “private like counts,” meaning no more numbers under your friends’ posts.
Earlier that month, during an interview at a TED conference, the Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey shared a big idea of his own. “If I had to start the service again, I would not emphasize the follower count as much,” he said. “I would not emphasize the ‘like’ count as much. I don’t think I would even create ‘like’ in the first place.” A few weeks later, in a post on its community blog, YouTube announced a small but notable change to the way it would display subscriber counts on channels — in more cases, the company said, numbers would be rounded.
Following years of increasing scrutiny, leaders at each company seem to be gathering around the same small solution: adjusting or eliminating metrics. This would represent a notable turn for services so strongly identified with public, comparable and newly valuable numbers. It also raises the question: If this is their solution, what do these people think is the problem?
Influence as Public Health Crisis
“We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition,” Mr. Mosseri said at F8. Instagram, he hoped, would become “a space that feels much less pressurized.” Mr. Dorsey’s word for Twitter’s dilemma was “toxicity,” which he thought could be decreased if big, bold numbers weren’t providing “incentives” for the wrong things. YouTube said that its change was simply a matter of ensuring numbers are displayed consistently across the service; in recent months, however, the company has dealt with a series of consuming and highly public feuds between creators, each involving follower counts — increasing, decreasing, competing — in central ways.
That Instagram can feel “pressurized” and trigger status anxiety is hard to dispute; even Twitter’s most satisfied customers would admit that it can become “toxic.” But to conclude that these men are merely late to engage with the most obvious (and obviously correct) of their users’ critiques would be a misunderstanding. Their problems aren’t our problems. Their job, as ever, is to get people to use the services. Metrics helped them do this job for a while, showing new users what to aim for and then reminding them constantly what success looks like. This was during the growth phase, for both users and the new platforms they were joining. Their priorities seemed aligned. Now, that era is passing.
In 2019, by most measures except its stock price, Twitter is conspicuously stagnant. Follower counts do not necessarily translate to people actually engaging with posts; it’s not uncommon, for example, to see a brand with hundreds of thousands of followers post updates that receive virtually no human interactions. (The company recently did away with another metric: It will no longer report its “monthly active user” metric to investors, instead emphasizing a new one that may tell a more favorable story: “monetizable daily active users.”)
Instagram may be the pride of Facebook, and it’s still growing briskly overall, according to the company. One problem suggested, and answered, by hiding likes is that people aren’t posting to their feeds as much as they used to. Instead, they’re posting Stories, the transient format copied from Snapchat. Removing a metric from beneath regular Instagram posts might alleviate some stress among users; it would also help minimize the sense that the thing that first made Instagram popular is in decline.
The real problem, from Instagram’s perspective, is the kind of thing you might worry about if you were clearly “incentivized” by metrics of an internal, top-level variety: not that Instagram isn’t growing, or that people aren’t using it, but that maybe they’re using one part of it less, when they should be using all of it more.
Networks Minus Numbers
What would a metric-free, or metric-light, social media actually feel like? It’s not so easy to imagine revisionist platform histories, given how integral metrics have been to the stories of their rapid rise and dominance. These omnipresent numbers have also served as imperfect but widely used ways quantify revolutions, jokes, screw-ups and presidencies. And their proprietary and borrowed names — shares, likes, follows, views — have infused our everyday speech.
In earlier incarnations, both Twitter and Instagram presented users with simple chronological feeds, and visible metrics also provided secondary sorting mechanics. These numbers — how many people liked something, or commented on something, or re-shared something, or followed someone — were a biased, ruthless and explicit value system. That these numbers were goals unto themselves was implied from the start.
Instagram without quantified likes might have been nicer, in some way. But it would not have produced the Instagram we know today, and certainly not the Instagram purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars, which became the Instagram of influencers, which is the Instagram of status anxiety, which is the Instagram of more than a billion users.
Looking forward, though, a nearly number-free social media is somewhat easier to visualize. If you primarily consume Instagram Stories, you’re already seeing one version of it. And today, what you see on Twitter and Instagram already depends on a mixture of signals — things you’ve liked in the past, how much time you’ve spent looking at a particular user’s content, whether you communicate privately with a given user and whether you have an affinity for some topic or another — not just chronology, likes or retweets. Those signals are all metrics too, of a sort, invisible to us but very much legible to the platforms themselves. Imagine a ticker in your Instagram app counting up the number of times you’ve scrolled, or tallying the number of times you’ve tapped, or counting up the seconds you’ve spent looking at an image. These already exist, somewhere, and may inform what you see every day. They’re just not for you to know.
Understood this way, the idea that metrics are the problem sounds an awful lot like these companies saying their users can no longer be trusted, not even with the scraps of actionable data they’ve been allowed to see for years. (It also doubles as a way to share the premise that there must be a healthy and highly monetizable way to use these services, and that the platforms can be trusted to figure out what it is.) These metrics have outlived their original purpose and been assigned new roles behind the scenes. (TikTok, a much newer app still in its early period of frantic growth, lavishes users with metrics and feedback, and it works. We haven’t changed; our apps have.)
Likes and retweets used to be translated into signals for people. Now they just provide signals for the machines. In the newer, less immediately comprehensible versions of our feeds, where what we see is chosen according to processes that we can only guess at, Twitter and Instagram suggest the existence of dozens of metrics that are hidden by default. If our feeds are already assembled based on cues from countless secret metrics, why not hide a couple more?
The response to Instagram’s announcement has been muted, aside from some panic among professional influencers. The company tested the change in Canada, where some users received a message explaining the change: “We want your followers to focus on what you share, now how many likes your posts get.” Whether the company rolls it out further remains to be seen. (For some users, the test has already ended.) Likewise, the relationship between things Jack Dorsey thinks are interesting at the time and actual features in the Twitter platform is, at best, extremely loose.
At YouTube, though, where the change was real but much smaller — rounded numbers of followers instead of exact numbers, making small directional fluctuations harder to detect and, say, make into the subject of a video — the response was harsh. The daily experience of using Instagram and Twitter over the last few years has given users the impression that the few visible metrics are, if not unimportant, at least somewhat devalued and decoupled from one another, and from reality. Power and clout gained on the platforms is largely expressed and monetized through third parties, as with influencers, or manifested elsewhere, in, say, politics.
On YouTube, followers and video views translate directly into payment from the company. “No one wants this,” wrote one of hundreds of users responding to the company’s announcement. “People who keep their sub counts public want to show the full number.” Another explained why. “Time could be better spent fixing problems that users have reported across the site, not abbreviating sub counts, which can lead to lost potential business opportunities,” the user wrote. “Why do you hate your content creators so much?” asked another.
Melodramatic as they may sound, these responses reflect a rational understanding of what YouTube is, and what any social network is, really: a marketplace with goods and currency and winners and losers, governed by an all-powerful and unaccountable corporation. Metrics mean money, and knowing them provides a rare if fleeting sense of knowledge and control in an environment otherwise ruled by secrets — one that will exploit you whether or not you actively try to exploit it. For users, numbers are power. For the platforms, so is hiding them.