You may have read about—or already seen, depending on where you are—the latest tweak to Facebook’s interface: the disappearance of the likes counter.
Like Instagram (which it owns), Facebook is experimenting with hiding the number of likes that posts receive for users in some areas (Australia for Facebook, and Canada for Instagram).
In the new design, the number of likes is no longer shown. But with a simple click you can see who liked the post and even count them.
It seems like Facebook is going to a lot of trouble to hide a seemingly innocuous signal, especially when it is relatively easy to retrieve.
Facebook’s goal is reportedly to make people comfortable expressing themselves and to increase the quality of the content they share.
There are also claims about ameliorating user insecurity when posting, perceived liberty of expression, and circumventing the herd mentality.
But are there any scientific grounds for this change?
The MusicLab model
In 2006, US researchers Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts set out to investigate the intriguing disconnect between quality and popularity observed in cultural markets.
They created the MusicLab experiments, in which users were presented with a choice of songs from unknown bands. Users would listen online and could choose to download songs they liked.
The users were divided into two groups: for one group, the songs were shown at random with no other information; for the other group, songs were ordered according to a social signal—the number of times each had already been downloaded—and this number was shown next to them.
A song’s number of downloads is a measure of its popularity, akin to the number of likes for Facebook posts.
The results were fascinating: when the number of downloads was shown, the song market would evolve to be highly unequal (with one song becoming vastly more popular than all the others) and unpredictable (the winning song would not be the same if the experiment were repeated).
Based on these results, Australian researchers proposed the first model (dubbed the MusicLab model) to explain how content becomes popular in cultural markets, why a few things get all the popularity and most get nothing, and (most important for us) why showing the number of downloads is so detrimental.
They theorised that the consumption of an online product (such as a song) is a two-step process: first the user clicks on it based on its appeal, then they download it based on its quality.
As it turns out, a song’s appeal is largely determined by its current popularity.If other people like something, we tend to think it’s worth taking a look at.