What Is Facebook & Instagram Not Telling Us About “Likes”?

Dr. Delaney Ruston – I confess I have taken down a few posts on my personal Facebook page in the past because they didn’t get any comments or “Likes.” I find it a little embarrassing to admit that. Yet that said, feelings like embarrassment and other uncomfortable emotions help me decide what I want to blog about. I believe our emotions speak to our shared universal truths.

When I didn’t get interactions on a post, a wave of different feelings went through my head: anger — does the algorithm not show this to others? Insecurity — is my post so irrelevant to people that they don’t care about it and don’t care about me? 

Of course, my logical brain would immediately step in and say, “No, no Delaney, all good, just keep the post there. Some folks probably saw it and could have helped people. Just relax.”  The emotional side of my brain said, “Well, hun, you feel bad, it’s ok, you can take it down.” And on a few occasions over the years, the emotional side of my brain won out. I hit the “delete post” button. 

Today I’m writing about what the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the Facebook Files tells us about what Facebook and Instagram know about “Likes” and what they are not telling us, and solutions on how we can help our youth with “Likes.”

I have been particularly frustrated with Facebook and Instagram in the handling of their experiments in getting rid of “Likes” for some users as part of a test. I distinctly remember being with my family at Thanksgiving in 2019 when a 28-year old family member said, “Hey, look, my “Likes” are gone!” This prompted folks to look at their Instagram accounts, and we learned he was the only one whose “Likes” were gone. 

Around that time, Instagram and Facebook started saying how they were doing experiments around “Likes,” but they were sharing very little information. For example,  I could not find out whether they used a random process to determine who they hid “Likes” from. 

Over the years since that time, I haven’t been able to find information on their experiment’s findings. 

Now cut to the present and the leaking of documents by Frances Haugen to the Wall Street Journal. In one of the articles by the reporter, Jeff Horwitz, he wrote the following:

“Teens told Facebook in focus groups that “like” counts caused them anxiety and contributed to their negative feelings.

When Facebook tested a tweak to hide the “likes” in a pilot program they called Project Daisy, it found it didn’t improve life for teens. “We didn’t observe movements in overall well-being measures,” Facebook employees wrote in a slide they presented to Mr. Zuckerberg about the experiment in 2020.

So my question to Facebook and Instagram is, “Where is the data?! What are the numbers? What percentage of teens said that it didn’t improve their life?” 

It all feels very secretive to me.

This past May, Facebook and Instagram decided to make an option that allows all users to hide the outward-facing numbers of “Likes.”  You, the user, however, can still see the “Likes.”

On the Instagram app:

  1. The screen after you upload the picture has various options.
  2. The lightly greyed-out bottom option says “Advanced Settings.” 
  3. When you click “Advanced Settings,” the first option is whether or not to hide “Likes.”

Turning off “Likes” on Facebook is not quite as easy as doing it on Instagram: 

  1. On the Facebook app, go to “Settings & Privacy” section on the first page.
  2. Then go to the “Settings.”
  3. Then on the next page scroll almost to the bottom to a section called “News Feeds,”
  4. In “Newsfeed,” there is an option called “Reaction Preferences,”
  5. There you select to hide the number of “Likes” and reactions from people on your post. 

In that same article, Horwitz wrote this that does not put a good light on Facebook: 

“…Facebook rolled out the change as an option for Facebook and Instagram users in May 2021 after senior executives argued to Mr. Zuckerberg that it could make them look good by appearing to address the issue, according to the documents. ‘A Daisy launch would be received by press and parents as a strong positive indication that Instagram cares about its users, especially when taken alongside other press-positive launches,’ Facebook executives wrote in a discussion about how to present their findings to Mr. Zuckerberg?”

Solutions

So what are some of the things we can do related to all the many issues around “Likes” that any social media user faces, both adults and youth? 

Here are some ideas, and I’ll start with my personal revelation and change. 

  • Be a “Rebel of Likes.” Since learning that Facebook continued “Likes” and didn’t tell us anything about their research on it, I have gained a new vigor to post things I care about and feel perfectly fine if the post gets no “Likes.” I feel like a “Rebel of Likes”— a term I coined right this minute. 
    That said, I do care about the things I post on my personal page, which I do every few weeks. It might be something that makes me smile, but it also may be a link to a talk from someone I admire or other important resources to help people. So while I have a new mindset around “Likes” on my personal page, I still hope that useful posts reach people that can help or make them smile.
  • Try to be judicious about how often you make the point to your kids about how everything online is curated. Most youth I talk to who use social media tell me that they know people show their more curated lives, and they get tired of being told that. Instead, I like to talk with young people about what they think about this fact and how it is part of the human condition in that we can know something to be true logically, but it still can mess with us emotionally. They usually delve energetically into that conversation. 
  • Having conversations about the often conflicting agendas of what is best for human health and what is best for companies is important. It totally applies to conversations about Facebook and Instagram. Why are Instagram and Facebook not openly sharing data about the “Likes” experiment?  

Additional questions to get the conversation started:

  1. Consider starting a conversation saying something like, “It’s easy for adults to be so anti -“Likes” on social media, but, clearly, there ARE SOME upsides to this feature. Let’s name some of the upsides.
  2. How would things be if there were no “Likes” but only comments? Or visa versa?
  3. As an adult, share times you felt various emotions about the “Likes”/attention you did or did not get on something you shared on social media. Did your feelings last for a while or pass right away? Did it change your thoughts about posting? 
  4. What do we think about the idea of “Rebel of Likes”? 
  5. Might we try a couple of days of getting rid of “Likes” (which are only outward-facing)  and see how each of us feels?