How many likes did your last Instagram post get? That information could soon be like asking what the balance is in your banking app.

A keen-eyed user spotted an update to the Instagram code that included the following note: “Testing a Change to How You See Likes: We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get.” The feature would hide the number of likes on Instagram posts from the public, leaving only comments as status symbols.

The discovery has generated a ton of conversation online, from people panicking about the demise of their favourite social status barometer, to hope that this may help to stem mental health problems that arise from the pressure to perform on Instagram.

In the context of digital strategy for brands, the update is particularly interesting. Right now, a disproportionate amount of time and attention is spent hand-wringing over the number of likes that Instagram posts receive. A Lot of likes and it’s assumed that the social media manager is doing a great job. Fewer likes, and they may be looking for a new job soon.

There’s something clearly wrong with that picture, but here’s the rub: As long as this meaningless metric of success is prominently public-facing then people will mistakenly assign value to it, which ironically makes those likes valuable.

Like everything else in this world, Instagram likes have exactly as much value as the market believes they do, and if your customer would rather buy/visit/wear a brand that gets more internet points, then likes have real business value.

Now, consider a world where there was no easy way for the market to know how many or how few likes any post received. In that scenario, a high number of likes loses all brand value and simply becomes an internal metric that can help us to understand which pieces of content received more or less approval from our audience. Much like an email open rate, a post’s engagement rate will become just one data point in a basket of other important metrics that, all together, let us know how well our digital strategy is performing.

Humans, as a large group, are not particularly good at breaking habits, especially when those habits help us to stratify our social status and serve as a shortcut to trust and popularity. Assuming that Instagram does go forward with this Like-less version of their platform, the general adoption will look something like this:

  1. Some people publicly celebrate the relief that comes from a like-free Instagram feed, while others stamp their feet and cry foul
  2. They focus instead on the comments-section, which will be the only remaining post-status-symbol.
  3. Influencers and brands alike shift their focus from Likes to Comments
  4. Users, wanting to support their favourite creators, comply with the minimum required effort
  5. Public-facing likes are replaced with public-facing 👍
  6. Number of comments becomes the new social currency

My pessimistic prediction aside, the net effect that removing Likes from Instagram content will have a significantly positive affect on the way that brands think about posts as just one touchpoint within a much broader digital landscape. It may even open up some brand conversations to the possibility of experimenting with more niche-style content that offers a ton of value to a small but passionate audience, but couldn’t have satisfied its appetite to the kind of broad appeal that results in high like-counts.