Instagram is experimenting with ways to fight online bullying and considering one potentially massive change for the platform: Hiding “likes.”
“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King sat down with the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, who opened up about their possible plans to make “like” counts private and said the company is “rethinking the whole experience” of Instagram with “wellbeing” as its top priority. It’s his first U.S. TV interview since taking the helm last October.
“One of the ideas we’re currently experimenting with is like counts private, for instance, ’cause we don’t want Instagram to be such a competition. We want it be a place where people spend more of their energy connecting with the people that they love and the things that they care about,” Mosseri said.
It’s a bold idea for a social media platform that’s long been defined by the ability to rack up likes for all of Instagram to see. Mosseri acknowledged that people might not be pleased about it and that it could even hurt Instagram.
“Isn’t part of the fun looking at the likes?” King asked.
“Well, you can still like in this current test. You just can’t see the number of likes unless it’s your own post. So you don’t have to do all this social comparison,” Mosseri said. “We will do things that mean people use Instagram less if we think that they keep people safe or generally create a healthier environment. And I think we have to be willing to do that.”
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He said he’s “100 percent” willing to do something that could affect the company’s bottom line.
“Will we do this one? It depends,” he said. “We’ll see if it works or not. But I’m really passionate about us being open to those types of changes.”
The idea of making like counts private, he said, came from his team.
“We’ve been focused on well-being broadly, like I said, it’s our number one priority,” Mosseri said. “We’re people too. We go home, we read the newspaper, we read our news online, we get the criticism. And so the team that works on likes and comments was thinking, ‘Okay, how do I take some of those values, this focus on wellbeing, this focus on the nuance of people’s experiences and apply that to my day job?’ And so they just came up with this … and we were excited.”
Mosseri, who is just 36 years old, took the top job at Instagram in October after 10 years as an executive at Facebook, which owns Instagram. He also spoke to King about what it’s been like leading Instagram during a time of heightened public scrutiny over perceived tech overreach and privacy concerns.
“You’ve been on the job nine months. Last I checked it takes nine months to make a healthy baby, generally speaking – do we have a healthy Instagram under the watch of Adam Mosseri?” King asked.
“We have a growing Instagram. We have an Instagram that has a lot – a bright future in front of it. But there’s definitely a lot of things to work through. So maybe a tentative yes,” he said.
When Mosseri replaced Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger nine months ago, speculation circulated that the change was caused by tension with Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
“Word on the street is that you’re part of Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle and so it would make sense that he wanted to choose you because there may or may not have have been tension between Mike and Kevin and Mark,” King said.
“There’s no backfilling those founders. There’s no way that I can be Kevin or Mike … All of us would have wanted them to stay longer, including Mark. But at some point for them it became time to move on,” he said.
Despite speculation about the coziness of their relationship, Mosseri insisted he feels like he can challenge Zuckerberg.
“I feel like I challenge him on a regular basis … I think I challenge him and he challenges me. He has a high bar for me. He has a high bar for everybody who works here and I think that’s a good thing. And when I disagree with him, I try to be very honest about that,” he said.
Mosseri said he thinks Zuckerberg wanted Instagram’s founders to stay on longer but avoided guessing at what their motivations might have been.
“Did that give you pause knowing how some of the people in the company seemed to feel about their departure? ‘Cause I don’t think people really understand why they left,” King said.
“It gave me pause. I was worried about how I would be received from the Instagram organization,” Mosseri said. “I’ve been really surprised and heartened by how positive people’s reaction within Instagram have been to me … some of ’em are a bit of a wait and see, ‘who’s this guy, what’s he about?’ And I think that’s fair, too. But I was expecting more tension than I’ve actually received.”
Before joining Instagram, Mosseri managed Facebook’s newsfeed. It was under his leadership that Facebook was scrutinized for Russian manipulation of the app heading into the 2016 U.S. election. He said he regrets “not being more invested in safety and integrity issues earlier.”
How those lessons from 2016 will figure into being ready for 2020 is something he worries about.
“I worry about this a lot because the actors that we are working against [are] … very sophisticated, very motivated, very quick to adapt their methodologies. When we close one loophole or one opportunity, they often find another. So, I mean, the major lesson was we are underfocused on the risks,” he said.
There have been growing calls to break up and regulate Facebook over fears that it’s become too powerful. Mosseri said he does not believe Facebook and Instagram should be separated.
“I think it’s important to be really clear if you believe that we should be separated, why and what problem it’s gonna solve,” he said. “If you look at the issues that I’m most focused on, things like bullying or self-harm or elections integrity, all of those problems become exponentially more difficult for us at Instagram to address if you split us up.”
Mosseri says his focus at Instagram is on wellbeing. The app is currently testing changes, including making “likes” private as well as a new warning feature, which sends a notification when a comment may be harmful or offensive.
“We don’t block you. We just say, ‘Hey, this looks like it might be unkind, do you want to undo it?'”
“Before I send it or after I’ve sent it?” King asked.
“We’re looking at both right now. This is in testing. And we’ve seen the people – not everyone, a minority but a meaningful minority – are changing in what they say and saying nicer things,” Mosseri said.
Mosseri, the father of two kids under the age of five, is already thinking about how to regulate his own children’s screen habits.
“So, currently screen time rules are only on planes or when sick. So we travel a decent amount. So I try to convince them that iPads only work on planes. So they managed to get savvy to that pretty quickly,” he said. “When they’re 13, they’ll be able to sign up. But I think moderation is important. So I will probably actively talk to them about how much to use it and how to use it. And I think that’s healthy.”
King also pressed Mosseri on the question that’s been on her mind and many others: Why do I see ads for products I haven’t searched for?
“Can you help me understand how I can be having a private conversation with someone about something I’m interested in seeing or buying… and an advertisement for that will pop up on my Instagram feed,” King asked. “I haven’t searched for it, I haven’t talked to anybody about it. I swear I think you guys are listening. I know you’re gonna say you’re not.”
Mosseri acknowledged that a lot of people have the same question and tried to explain how ads might show up. “There are two ways that can happen. One is dumb luck, which can happen. The second is you might be talking about something because it’s top of mind because you’ve been interacting with that type of content more recently. So maybe you’re really into food and restaurants. You saw a restaurant on Facebook or Instagram and you really like the thing. It’s top of mind, maybe it’s subconscious and then it bubbles up later. I think this kind of thing happens often in a way that’s really subtle.”
And Mosseri insisted that Instagram doesn’t spy. “But we don’t look at your messages, we don’t listen in on your microphone, doing so would be super problematic for a lot of different reasons. But I recognize you’re not gonna really believe me.”
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