We need to start this story about Instagram with a history lesson about Snapchat.

You might remember that at the start of 2018 -- February to be exact -- Snapchat made a major change to its design.

It was very controversial.

Then, one of Snapchat's most popular influencers, Kylie Jenner, complained on Twitter about it. And the bottom quickly fell out.

"Ugh this is so sad."

Jenner wrote just 18 words: 

The tweet went viral, and Snapchat's stock tanked almost instantly, down 6 percent. The company arguably lost $1.3 billion in market capitalization. 

Then, Jenner tweeted again -- 

-- and the stock rebounded.

It was a power move if ever you've seen one -- a top influencer reminding a social-media darling that without its most popular users, it doesn't have much.

Snapchat has long since recovered. But now its larger rival Instagram might be making the same mistake -- testing changes that are likely to leave its most influential influencers "heartbroken," according to The Wall Street Journal.

Let me count the ways.

The change here is more subtle, and it's still in the testing phase, but it could be truly dynamic.

Starting last month, in select markets like Canada, Japan and Australia, Facebook-owned Instagram has been experimenting with making it impossible for regular users to see how many "likes" they get from posts and profiles.

That's a giant change for influencers like Jenner -- who has 143 million followers on Instagram and reportedly is paid $1.27 million for every post -- because it eliminates a key source of social proof that reinforces popular posts and makes them go viral.

As the Journal summarized:

"Under the test, influencers can still view their own likes--key to demonstrating their value to the brands that bankroll their fabulous lives. The problem, though, is that popularity begets popularity. 

In an article published in May in Psychology Today, Pamela Rutledge, a professor of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., explains that likes are a form of social proof--the more likes, the more likable something is and the more it is worth." 

There are probably two possible reasons for this experiment:

  1. Under pressure, Facebook and Instagram really are trying to increase user happiness by removing this somewhat artificial display of a post's popularity -- and therefore its users' popularity. At least one study has found that this kind of social-media interaction is linked to depression and anxiety in younger users.
  2. Or -- or perhaps, "and" -- Facebook and Instagram see an opportunity to grab advertising dollars away from high-paid influencers who pay no commission to the company, and instead push marketers to use the platform's advertising tools in order to push messages in front of potential customers.

Heartbroken yet?

The bottom line is that taking away like counts takes away some of the value of the platform from influencers like Jenner. 

And while Instagram has such enormous reach that they're not likely to abandon the platform entirely, Jenner has already shown that she (and other big influencers) can exercise a lot of power over platforms.

This whole thing is fascinating. 

It's like a game of high-stakes chicken, in which Instagram is betting that the benefit it can derive from hiding like counts will outweigh whatever degree Jenner and other influencers might decide to try to damage it.

Maybe we'll prove the psychologists wrong. Maybe it won't matter if ordinary users, like you and me, can see how many hearts Kylie Jenner got on a post?

Or maybe people will truly be "heartbroken."

Published on: Aug 17, 2019
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