Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it would trial making metrics, such as Likes and video views, private to other users. The trial will take place in Australia and will be the company’s first ever experiment in hiding the metric that it introduced a decade ago.
Like counts and similar social metrics have received criticism since their inception for creating competitive and extreme environments on social media sites. Many experts believe that their use pressurises users and lends weight to offensive (organic or paid) content.
In May, Instagram (a Facebook-owned photo sharing application) started testing the same thing for users resident in Canada.
When representatives from Facebook discussed the changes with journalists, they emphasised that the trial’s results would be assessed on the basis of user happiness and continued engagement, but it’s important to remember who the Like button is for.
On websites without Facebook’s extensive reach, the Like button serves as a way to measure the value of a piece of user submitted content and to rank and filter these contributions. This is the use which many experts object to, stating that it has caused an increase in anxiety and depression amongst younger users, in particular.
On Facebook, however, the Like button is additionally implemented as an advertising network (via the social sharing API) and allows Facebook to gather enormous amounts of information from those who use the feature on Facebook and third-party websites.
It has been shown that statistical models which use Like data as their only inputs can achieve high accuracy for personal attributes such as sexual orientation, race and intelligence. It goes without saying, then, that Like metrics are a central pillar of Facebook’s efforts as an advertising marketplace, allowing them to more narrowly identify users who would be receptive to their customers’ messages.
While Facebook is publicly claiming that this trial change is meant to increase the happiness of its users, it comes many years after calls for removing Likes began. Furthermore, Facebook emphasised that it would only consider extending the trial if users kept using the Like feature, which suggests that gathering these metrics may be more important to the company than any level of user happiness.
It’s also possible that this change, which will remove social pressure on users to Like what their friends, followers and connections Like, could benefit the signal to noise ratio and further increase Facebook’s targeting powers.
The results from the Instagram trial haven’t been made public yet, but I think it’s safe to assume that they have been fiscally positive given this decision from Facebook.
The trial has been lauded by those who have been lobbying to make social networks less anxiety-inducing, but is merely hiding the metric enough?
The Like may be a bonding and feedback mechanism but it’s also the crux of one of the world’s most powerful and wide-reaching advertising systems. If we’re going to build a less manipulative, surveillance-free internet, it may be necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater.