“All of social media is at a crossroads, having built platforms that cater to engagement over health and safety; they’re now trying to backpedal furiously ahead of increased regulation.”
With this quote, TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez nailed the crux of the many announced changes we’re seeing on social media platforms. For a long time, engagement was the buzzword of choice; site founders and developers pushed for new features (and ignored problems) in dogged pursuit of this metric at the highest levels. But now that its consequences are coming into sharp focus, a new direction is being pursued. In the past few weeks, we’ve gotten more clarity on how Twitter and Instagram plan to address parts of this large and complex challenge.
Instagram: “Exploring Ways to Reduce Pressure”
Developer and app detective Jane Manchun Wong uncovered a feature hidden in the code of Instagram: an option to hide “likes” on a photo. Engadget reports that Wong shared news of “a version [of Instagram] that doesn’t let the audience see how many likes a post gets.” They go on:
The person who posted it still does, but as the app describes it, “we want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get. During this test, only the person who share [sic] a post will see the total number of likes it gets.”
For the average user, this could be a beneficial way to reduce some of the competitiveness that seems to arise around using Instagram. As Josh Constine points out for TechCrunch, it will likely reduce the temptation to “like” something because everyone else is liking it (and phenomena like World Record Egg will likely be a thing of the past), and the temptation to delete posts with low like numbers will abate. However, it could present a challenge for influencers; while likes are becoming a less valuable metric when assessing their value and impact, the invisibility of this measure could make identifying bankable partners more difficult.
An Instagram spokesperson has confirmed that these tests are happening, but there’s no target for a release of the feature, or even if it’ll be released officially at all. But previous features uncovered by Wong in this fashion have gone on to be released. So now we wait.
Twitter: New Control Over Conversations
Meanwhile, over on Twitter, a well-received test feature in their prototype twttr app appears to be coming to life in the full version this summer.
“Hide Replies” will allow the original poster on a thread to alter the visibility of replies on the timeline. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, which allow the original poster to delete replies outright, Twitter will instead permit them to “hide” them, requiring an additional click to be viewed as part of the conversation.
This is a pro for those who find themselves attracting any sort of distracting response: at best, extraneous or off-topic responses; at worst, abuse or trolling responses. However, a need for an original poster to sift through replies that fall into the “worst” category is among the potential cons for the feature. Another possible downside? This feature allows for the silencing (or, at the very least, temporary obstruction) of dissenting opinions—or even factual additions to a conversation.
The “hide replies” measure is among several Twitter shared as part of an update on their pursuit of the ever-elusive and ill-defined metric of “platform health.” Other changes include clearer explanations for tweets designated to stay on the feed despite their violation of the rules, and more ease in sharing specifics when flagging tweets that threaten user safety. In all of this, the goal seems to be twofold: to reduce the burden of those most vulnerable on Twitter for keeping themselves safe, and to distance themselves as a company from their reputation for being negligent toward these users.
Will These Measures Work?
It’s hard to know whether the measures each platform is taking will make a dent in a culture that has already shifted so dramatically as a result of these apps. And it’ll take far more than this to cure the ills that each site suffers from. Instagram, thanks to its parent company Facebook, was part of a major news dump for its vulnerable password storage system. And even as these changes were being reported and progress was being shared, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey found himself under fire at TED 2019 for the site’s glacial pace of change.
But for the time being, the focus is on how to make these sites better for those who have made them part of their daily lives. And what these measures seem to have in common, is returning some control over the experience to the user. It’ll be interesting to see how, when given some power in these spaces that often make many feel powerless, the experience starts to change for all involved.
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