What Happens When Likes are Gone?

Remember when Facebook reactions came out? Did you know they were used 300 billion times in the first year they were introduced, plus another 3,125,000 new likes every minute? That’s a lot of clicking on that little thumbs-up icon. 

And what happens when you click that? You see a little number go up and you feel good knowing that your opinion has been noted on that content. However, this little action, this clicking of likes and reactions may be hiding a serious problem, not just for users of the platform but also for marketers. 

Psychologists are raising the alarm that Facebook and other social media sites might be damaging to our mental health. Even if you think this isn’t true, Facebook and Instagram aren’t taking any chances. 

They are experimenting with removing features from the site that could drive people to lower self-esteem levels. Instagram removed the number of likes on a photo last year. Facebook has removed like counts, though not reactions and who responded, from posts in Australia. Depending on those tests, we may be seeing the equivalent of Panda and Penguin for Facebook, a fundamental shift in how people use the site.

So what does that mean for marketers? If we are using likes as a measure of success for posts, how do you measure success when they’re removed? Let’s take a look at the issues and some possible solutions.

What’s Happening Psychologically?

The key problem seems to be that social media invites social comparison. The comparison with ourselves to others can cause erosion of self-esteem in some people. The Harvard Business Review posted a study about the psychological effects of social media, specifically Facebook, in 2017. They wanted to get a clear picture of the relationship between social media use and well-being. 

The study looked at 5,208 adults. Overall, the results concluded that real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, but that Facebook was negatively associated with it. It was found that both liking other’s content and clicking links reduced self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

However, they were unable to say why. They measured liking, posting, and clicking links and their impact. They theorize that it may be a matter of the quantity of use of the site rather than the quality of the interactions they have.

There are also concerns about addiction. The average person spends about an hour on Facebook each day, and it’s in Facebook’s interest to keep us there as long as possible. The more time, the more ad exposure, something we marketers can get behind. Unfortunately, it may not be healthy for users (including marketers) in the long run.

A survey in the UK also reveals some worrying symptoms. 1,500 adults were asked about their experiences using social media. Most felt inadequate and jealous of other social media users. Self-reported rates of feeling ugly were also up. Another survey found that many people edit their photographs before posting them. Some have even asked their friends or family members to take down photos because they were unflattering.

This wasn’t the only study to look at these problems. Something about social media really seems to affect our mental well-being. We’re just not sure what it is that’s causing it. But it does seem that less social media exposure does improve our mental health.

There are still questions about whether it is social media that causes these negative feelings or if negative feelings cause people to use social media more. But with all of these studies piling up, social media companies are taking notice and are trying to do something about it.

How Is Social Media Responding?

Facebook doesn’t want to see their product as causing harm, but it is in their interest to keep them on the platform as long as they can. So they are investigating ways to lower the risk. A researcher last month found prototype code in Facebook’s Android app that hides the number of likes and reactions from posts. 

Facebook has confirmed that it is doing a test in Australia to see how people act on the platform when these are removed. Users can see that people reacted and can click on the link to see who reacted and how, but the total number is missing. Only the author of a post can see the full number. Video view numbers were also suppressed.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has done something similar. After a test program in Canada removed likes had positive results they expanded the project to six other countries, though not the United States.

If these things do improve people’s mental health over time, the changes may become permanent. It’s such a tiny change, but it would be a huge difference. Social media is rooted in those little numbers of likes, retweets, favorites, reactions, all those little markers of social success that keep us coming back. When they are gone, what happens?

A Marketing Problem? Not Yet

For marketers, this issue raises some serious questions. First, will marketers still have access to that data? For now, the answer seems to be yes. The authors of posts will still see the full counts so marketers posting on Facebook pages will still have access to this data. However, it remains to be seen how people react to content in this new format. 

Here’s a disturbing question for marketers. How much does the like count weigh in a person’s reaction to a piece of content? Do people like things because the content is good or because a lot of other people already liked it?

For Facebook, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle and hidden in the algorithm. We can contrast this with a site like Reddit. On that site, the placement of a post depends greatly on the number of votes it receives from members. Users also have several sorting functions for posts depending on the number of positive and negative votes received. If vote numbers were hidden for posts on Reddit it would become something completely different.

Facebook doesn’t say how like counts affect the visibility of a post, but we also don’t know how much the like count number affects how a person will interact with a post. This is probably something that could only be known by taking away the counts, but since Facebook users don’t know how their reactions affect a post it doesn’t have the visceral satisfaction of downvoting something you dislike on Reddit and knowing you’re playing a part in suppressing that content.

Here’s another question. If removing the like numbers changes user behavior, will Facebook change their algorithm to suit? There doesn’t seem to be any harm in keeping the total like numbers in use behind the scenes for ranking, but that may depend on how users interact with the platform after its removal. If it turns out that it truly was a vanity metric that could shake up how Facebook decides to show content and that could affect marketers.

How would a marketer treat social media content in this situation? One way might be to look at them as a form of PPC ad. Instead of measuring likes, you’d find some way to measure how many people saw the content and then did something with it. Facebook does have a “people reached” metric that shows how they say the post, so it wouldn’t be that hard to measure.

It may even be a blessing in disguise. Clicking the like button is about as low-effort as you can get for showing your approval of something. Far better signals for brand interaction are clicking links or commenting on posts. Plus, if your goal is something beyond sheer promotion then likes aren’t the best metric for measuring social media success anyway.

By this point, marketers should expect a major algorithm change to shake up the marketing space every few years or so anyway. Things change. If we can end up with healthier marketing and a better social media experience from it, all the better. Social media companies (and Google) hold many of the cards. We have to dance to their tune.

The jury is still out on whether science says if social media as a whole is harmful to humans or not, but the evidence is mounting that something about it is causing harm. Social media companies are reacting to these studies through experiments to help reduce that harm without affecting how much people use the site. Marketers can’t control how people view social media sites, but they do have to respond to any changes if they want to stay competitive.

It may also be time to stop asking people to click on that like button or to run contests about getting the most likes on something. If the social comparisons we make using likes as a measuring stick are as dangerous as psychologists are suggesting, then we share a responsibility for reducing that harm if we can. 

Marketers shouldn’t be in the business of using practices that cause harm to other people, whether that’s lying about a product or using techniques that have been shown to cause psychological harm. And if that means laying off the like button, so be it!