Instagram began testing hiding public like counts globally on Thursday, after experimenting with the design tweak in several individual markets abroad. People who upload photos and videos will still know how many people liked them—that information just won’t be seen by other users. The experiment is part of a wider shift at social media companies, so far mostly a rhetorical one, away from the metrics it once told people had immense value. Like Instagram head Adam Mosseri, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has spoken out about the toxic consequences of overemphasizing statistics like follower and like counts. Twitter also released a beta version of its app earlier this year that puts less prominence on likes and retweets.
But Instagram is one of the only major platforms to try bringing so-called demetrication to a wider segment of users. It’s previously tested removing likes in Italy, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Amid growing criticism of online platforms, abandoning likes allowed Mosseri to claim that Instagram wants to be “a space that feels much less pressurized.” But the Facebook-owned company has also quietly encouraged some users to embrace the anxiety and power that enhanced metrics can provide, by prompting them to convert their personal profiles into Instagram business accounts. Unsurprisingly, opening a business account is also a gateway to buying ads.
Instagram first introduced business accounts in 2016. There are now 140 million monthly active “businesses” across Facebook’s various platforms, according to the company. Any user can convert their personal profile into a “business” or “creator” one at any time, both of which come with souped-up analytics capabilities. Many normal people, with no intention of making money from their Instagram presence, have opted-in to the feature. In the age of influencers, where the line between personal branding and personal life has all but disappeared, some people are naturally eager to run their Instagram profile like it’s a job—and Instagram is happy to help.
Kym Lino, a spokesperson for Instagram, confirmed to WIRED that the company notifies people who it thinks could benefit from converting their personal accounts into business ones. “We use a machine learning model which predicts likely commercial intent of Instagram accounts to identify potential accounts that may benefit from professional tools like analytics,” she said in an email. It’s unclear what those signals might be, and Instagram declined to say.
I changed my personal Instagram profile, which I started in 2013, into a professional one several weeks ago. Instagram allows you to choose what type of business you run, and I earnestly chose “Journalist.” I later found that many people, especially teens, opt for more ironic options like “Cruise Line,” or “Well Water Drilling Service.” One friend has labeled herself a Grocery Store. After a few days, the statistics started rolling in. I could suddenly see things like how many people unfollowed me each week, how many visited my profile, and how many tapped on the people and places I tagged in my stories. It was eye-opening.
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I learned that over a dozen people tapped on the profile of a coworker after I tagged us eating Mexican food in my story. And I found out 46 people, for some reason or another, visited my profile in the last week—but only 16 had come from the one picture I uploaded. On that photo, of one of my oldest friends, I had written a long and gushing caption celebrating her birthday. My business account informed me that someone sent it to another person via direct message, but I couldn’t tell who or why. The analytics made salient the ways my friends and acquaintances surveil one another on Instagram all the time.
“I was stunned just to see how many people visited my profile even without posting for several months,” said Joseph Minga, a friend who recently switched to a professional Instagram account. He learned around 75 to 100 people view his profile a week, out of around 1,500 followers. “It really made me take a step back and ask what are they looking for on here? and in all seriousness, could I have a cyberstalker?”
Instagram also lets you see how people interact with your stories, including how many view them more than once, and the number who swipe away. “I was on vacation with my parents in France and posted it on my story. And like, of my 1,000 followers, five swiped away,” said Will Tjernlund, a consultant for Amazon sellers who has a business Instagram account. “It’s like wholesome content, that’s normal, and a cool image and background, and someone following me was like nah, not for me dog.”
Even though Instagram’s professional analytics are extremely granular, they’re still anonymized, and can’t account for the reason why someone took a specific action. That makes it easy to agonize about what you don’t know. “Since I have seen some of the extra data, I will question why I lost 14 followers in a week where I did not post anything at all. I don’t post as often anymore,” said Minga. “I think I have some sort of social media stage fright. Seeing that people were forwarding my posts to others via DM made me feel insecure.”
In addition to behavior metrics, Instagram provides business accounts with a wealth of demographic data about their followers. That includes where they live, how old they are, whether they’re male of female (there’s no recognition of users who identify as non-binary or transgender) and the times of day they’re active on the platform. It’s easy to see how this information would be useful to an influencer trying to boost engagement, or a brand who wants to know more about their audience. Instagram also attaches a large “Promote” button to every post, giving people the option to turn them into ads.
As both NBC News and Bloomberg have reported, there’s a security risk associated with business Instagram accounts, which is particularly hazardous for minors. When people convert to business accounts, they often accidentally make their email address or phone number public. The feature is meant to make it easy for people to contact legitimate business entities, but kids with business accounts also end up revealing their personal information to the world.
WIRED spoke to one mother, who knew her teenage daughter and son were masquerading as a Tax Preparation Service and a Go-Kart Track on Instagram, but didn’t realize their personal information might be on their profiles. “I am so ahead of every other parent of teens I know when it comes to technology,” she said. “I am literally facepalming that my 14-year-old son has a public Instagram account with his phone number on it.” Her daughter, on the other hand, had cleverly put down the number for Pizza Hut instead.
“Businesses and creators are clearly informed in the sign-up or conversion flow that the contact information they would like to make public to help people contact them will be displayed,” Lino, the Instagram spokesperson, said. Last month, Instagram also made it possible for creator and business accounts to choose not to display their contact information.
David Steir, a data scientist and business advisor in the Bay Area, has spent the last few months trying to track the global number of minors who may have professional Instagram accounts. He stumbled upon the issue while researching Instagram marketing for a potential client and became concerned. Because users can easily toggle between being corporations, “creators,” and normal people, Steir says he noticed the lines between all three groups on Instagram have blurred. “This thing is broken, like completely broken, in terms of a way of classifying and identifying what kind of an entity you are,” he says.
Maybe Instagram likes it that way. After all, the platform has helped thousands of people monetize otherwise personal content about their lives. The boundaries between a money-making entity and a personal scrapbook are gone. Microinfluencers, and even nanoinfluencers (people with only a few thousand followers on Instagram at most), are now paid to hawk products like makeup and shampoo. Are these accounts actual businesses, in the traditional sense? Maybe not, but they often have access to the same analytics as one.
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