STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Instagram is slowly testing out a big change. The social media company is starting to hide the number of likes that posts and stories get when they're put on that platform. Sam Sanders, host of the NPR podcast It's Been A Minute, is an Instagram fanatic, so he's here with analysis. Hi there, Sam.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey, how are you?
INSKEEP: For people who aren't on Instagram, I guess you're putting up pictures and you can see that five people liked it or 500 people liked it. What's happening to that feature now?
SANDERS: Exactly. So in the same way that on Facebook, you can see how many people like your grandma's post about someone's birthday, it's like that on Instagram as well. But that social reward that we all get for making Instagram posts that get a bunch of likes, it's become a popularity contest, Instagram says, and they want less of that. So in May, Instagram began to experiment with removing the ability to see how many likes or views other folks' posts receive - just in Canada at first, and not all Canadian users, just some. And this week, Instagram rolled that out to Australia and Brazil and Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand. So now, some folks in those countries won't be able to see the like or view counts on other people's posts, but they can still see the tallies on their own posts.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute, I can still have that addictive feature of looking to see if anybody likes my thing, but I don't have to feel bad that somebody else got 5,000 likes on theirs?
SANDERS: Yeah. So at this developers' conference in April, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, he said he wants users to spend a little more time, quote, "connecting with the people they care about, not wrapped up in popularity contests with strangers." And that kind of statement may be Instagram responding to a recent trend, especially with younger users. They want a social media experience that feels a bit more private and personal, not so public and performative. So they basically are moving towards a more walled-off social media just for folks that they actually like or at least know.
And of course, this is also a moment, Steve, full of negative headlines about all of the social media apps, how they affect our emotional health, fears about what kind of data they collect on us. And so for Instagram, this like test allows the company to possibly get a few days of positive headlines. And it may make it seem like this big tech company really cares about us.
INSKEEP: There certainly are big issues on the table, as you've just suggested. And there are studies suggesting that people can be more or less depressed, based on how they use social media, for example. But is this tweak - and I guess it sounds more like a tweak than a huge change - really going to change the experience and make it more healthy?
SANDERS: Well, I was thinking about it. I use Instagram a lot - all the time. And I said to myself, even if I don't see the like count on Instagram for other people, I will still see all those pretty people on the beach with abs and pretty friends and cute dogs, living a life that looks better than mine. The photos and the videos of a picture-perfect life are still out there. So that intense comparison, it can still be there even without me seeing a like count. And I talked with Karen North, she's a professor of digital social media at USC's Annenberg School. And she told me sometimes that like function on Instagram is not a bad thing.
KAREN NORTH: They may be trading one problem for another. People say, if I get X number of likes, I'll donate, you know, a service dog to a vet or plant a tree or do some other cause. We cannot join together anymore to promote those causes or even have that sense that we've come together with other people.
SANDERS: We could lose the next ice bucket challenge, Steve.
SANDERS: We could lose the ability to galvanize and unite folks on Instagram around good things through the like. And to that, I say, Steve, who would actually like that?
INSKEEP: I'm pressing the like button on this interview. Sam, thanks so much.
SANDERS: Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sam Sanders. And you can hear more of him on the news of the week by listening to his podcast, It's Been A Minute from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.