As Instagram tests hiding likes, China’s social media services fight a similar battle
Weibo, Alibaba's Youku, and Baidu's iQiyi are among the Chinese social media platforms trying to rein in an online popularity contest
It’s possible that one day no one will know how many people have liked your Instagram posts.
Starting this week, Instagram will start hiding likes for some users in the US, following similar tests in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Japan and New Zealand. CEO Adam Mosseri said the idea is to “depressurize Instagram, making it less of a competition.”
For both an average 13-year-old girl and a seasoned social media influencer, the quest for more likes, more mentions and more followers has become an unending pursuit. But the desire isn’t limited to the West. In China, where Instagram is blocked by the Great Firewall, the social popularity contest is just as acute.
Without access to Instagram or Twitter, China’s public social chatter largely occurs on Weibo. That’s where “water loading” -- the practice of using droves of real or fake accounts to inflate social traffic -- has come under particular scrutiny.
Last year, the country’s Communist Youth League called out the popular teen heartthrob Cai Xukun for having a suspiciously large number of Weibo posts with more than 100 million shares. (The platform has an estimated 313 million monthly active users, according to What’s on Weibo.)
Accusations of "water loading" also extend outside China’s firewall.
Chinese-Canadian rapper Kris Wu made global headlines last year when he bumped Ariana Grande off the US iTunes chart. It prompted perplexed Americans to collectively ask, “Who is Kris Wu?” At the time, the South China Morning Post spotted Wu’s fans sharing instructions on Weibo that advised each other on how to boost the artist’s iTunes ranking: Get a US Apple ID, buy songs using gift cards, clear cache and repeat.
To combat artificial traffic, Weibo took a measure similar to Instagram’s. It stopped displaying share counts above 1 million. If the number exceeds that, it simply shows as “1 million+.” The lofty threshold appears to target the entertainment industry, which is said to be particularly susceptible to “water army” tactics. Weibo said the move was aimed at “freeing the fan community from a vicious race.”
Streaming sites like Alibaba’s Youku and Baidu’s iQiyi also stopped showing viewership numbers after these figures became the subject of national jokes. In 2017, each of China’s top 10 shows amassed more than 10 billion online views -- a number that exceeds the entire population of Earth.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
But all these efforts haven’t stopped people -- especially ardent fans -- from trying to game the system.
After authorities banned a click-farming app, supporters of an unnamed male star resorted to sharing his Weibo posts manually, the Beijing Daily reported. Fans congregated in online groups where instructions were given out, advising participants to sign up for multiple accounts and share posts more than 100 times each day. Others flocked to alternative apps to get the job done.
For these dedicated fans, it’s about trying to keep their favorite stars ahead of the competition. As one person said, “Fans of other stars are inflating [traffic], how can we not?”
Some users and analysts say as long as some sort of popularity metrics exist, it’s difficult to stop people from trying to manipulate them.
Even as Weibo caps the number of share counts it shows, the number hasn’t entirely disappeared. And while iQiyi has hidden viewership numbers, it’s replaced them with another metric: A “heat” index that takes into account a variety of factors, including video shares.
As for Instagram, some say hiding likes won’t solve all of its problems. At the end of the day, people can still compare how many followers they have or how many people have left comments under their posts -- there’s no end to the competition for those who care.