Facebook Wants to End the “Popularity Contest”

facebookFacebook has announced that it will begin testing the hiding of like counts from posts on user’s news feeds. Although authors will see likes on their own status updates, they will be unable to see the numbers of likes on updates posted by those who they follow. (They will still see the number of comments their followers’ posts get and be able to see the different emojis used to express likes on their posts.) According to Tech Crunch, the testing—which will begin in Australia—is being initiated in an effort to improve users’ well-being by eliminating the psychologically damaging “popularity contest.” How the change would look to the average user is illustrated in the graphic below.

Interestingly, although like counts would disappear from friends’ status updates, Facebook reports that the data would still be used by algorithms to drive traffic on user’s news feeds. So although one would not see the number of likes that a friend’s update is getting, if the update is popular it would presumably rise to the top of one’s news feed. Whether or not users would ultimately get wise to this remains to be seen.


What also remains to be seen is how hiding like counts will reduce or eliminate the practice of social comparison that critics have long believed leads to envy and ultimately to anxiety. A number of studies have shown that such problems occur most often as a result of “passive” Facebook use, in which users casually scroll through their news feeds. As reported on Tech Crunch, one 2013 study “found that 20 percent of envy-inducing situations that experiment participants experienced were on Facebook, and that ‘intensity of passive following is likely to reduce users’ life satisfaction in the long-run, as it triggers upward social comparison and invidious emotions.’” In other words, users “compare their seemingly boring life to the well-liked glamorous moments shared by friends or celebrities and conclude they were lesser.” Additionally, researchers assert that “Facebook users can even exhibit a ‘self-promotion – envy spiral’ where they increasingly adopt narcissistic behaviors and glorify their lives in an attempt to compete with the rest of their social graph.”  The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham describes this as “success theater:” where people only show the best side of themselves on social media, and hide all the warts of real life.

Over the years there has been no shortage of criticism leveled at Facebook for profiting from such user distress. Now, however, Facebook seems to be recognizing that taking care of users is in its best interest. As Mark Zuckerberg said in a recent conference call, “protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits. It’s important to remember that Facebook is about bringing people closer together and enabling meaningful social interactions; it’s not primarily about consuming content passively.” Time will tell if this particular test proves him right. According to Tech Crunch, “if the test improves people’s sense of well-being without tanking user engagement, it could expand to more countries or even roll out to everyone.” But what if the test does tank user engagement? Will we return to the popularity contest?

Sources: cnet.com; techcrunch.com

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