Instagram’s missed mental health opportunity

What if Instagram accomplished nothing by hiding like counts?

Recently, Instagram created a switch that allows users to hide like counts on their posts. Facebook made this change in order to address a major problem for more than a billion users’ mental health: social media anxiety.

While this is a clear step forward for responsible UX, the company also decided not to remove like counts from the overall app. Why? The press release stated that “people use like counts to get a sense for what’s trending or popular.”

With hiding likes as a choice, I wonder: did the change improve users’ mental health?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Let’s say you believe like counts are harmful. You open the app and flip the switch to hide likes from your posts. You go about your day, eventually meeting a friend for lunch. You post a photo of you and her together.

When your friends see this post, they don’t see how many likes the post has. Rather than judge you on that number, they’re left to wonder: why did you hide your likes?

If you’re already unpopular, turning the feature on might just make you seem more unpopular.

By flipping the switch, do your followers suddenly become more open to connecting with you because there’s no number anymore? Or does it look like you’ve admitted to your consistent lack of social validation and are trying to hide that fact?

As users, how do we know that hiding likes isn’t just deepening the bifurcation between the unpopular and the popular across the entire network?

It’d be great to know for sure, but we don’t. We can only compare our own human experience to those we directly know about. If you don’t know anyone who thinks like this, you either don’t know them, or don’t really know them.

The feeling of loneliness kills people as many as smoking does in the US. Given that lives are at stake, it’s worth asking if the switch inadvertently makes things worse for people who are suffering from loneliness.

Photo by Prateek Katyal

If the company’s two-year study on hiding likes hasn’t already looked at whether the feature causes more isolation over time, there are a few things that could be done. (Disclaimer: As an armchair quarterback, I don’t think my ideas are new or unique. They’re just… hard.)

Instagram could get this information and make it public. Its parent company has the capabilities needed to present the results of its research without compromising the privacy of its users. Sharing this data would actually show whether the feature is working as intended. Maybe that’s not possible given internal policies or whatever.

Another option: If Facebook doesn’t want to incur the legal liability of admitting when its product hurts users, the company can give 3rd party researchers the same PR firepower that Facebook has previously given researchers that present positive studies. That smacks of good faith.

Facebook could publicize all significant results from its independent partners in academia, even when they’re not favorable to its platforms. If the results of a study are not positive, that presents an opportunity for the company to share what they’re doing to help. (Facebook’s executives might already have plans for this in the works — it’s not clear if they do.)

And if users aren’t convinced by the conclusions of studies, there are other options on the table. For example, Instagram could run a mental health-positive campaign showing how hiding likes makes your friends happier, as opposed to simply telling people about the switch. The company could be a leader in driving important conversations about depression within its user base, and maybe even cause positive cultural shifts.

Or, the company could just hide like counts for everyone not running a business account.

I admit — it takes a lot of organizational courage and risk tolerance to pull this off. But changing Instagram’s product priorities has a few positive effects:

  • It shows the world that Facebook actually cares about reducing social media anxiety.
  • When it comes to Congress, it would help Facebook show legislators that it can walk the talk of regulating itself.
  • It would help the company build trust with Gen Z, a generation that is more concerned about mental health than any other in history.

Facebook’s products are unique because they make it so easy to get a hit of self-deprecation and anxiety. For people with clinical depression, that can make it so hard to get out.

At Facebook’s scale, it’s not unreasonable to think that its product decisions can push people to self-harm or suicide. The longer someone stays depressed, the longer it takes them to recover, and the more time there is for self-harm.

Generally speaking, consumer Internet companies can help their user base avoid depression if they take proactive action whenever their platform creates precursors to depression (such as stress, isolation, and FOMO). In 2021, this is not an uncertainty in UX design or product management —it’s a choice.

Once the link between product experiences and precursors to depression is established, the problem can be addressed. If you’re an established company like Facebook with an entrenched product like Instagram, this might mean asking yourself: is using like counts to show what’s trending as valuable as saving the lives of those with a high likelihood of self-harm? (Analogy: is keeping small businesses open as valuable as saving the lives of an immunocompromised population vulnerable to a virus with no vaccine?)

On the other hand, if you’re a new market entrant, agility is on your side. Because your product, culture, and marketing are still pliable, you can do things now to help people out of the pit of despair later.

There will be a generation that appreciates your decisions (and it’s probably already here). Your company might end up on the right side of history, and that’ll be worth a lot.

Software engineer. Personal site: https://dannibles.com