On a recent afternoon, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, assembled members of his staff to discuss the secret details of a critical project: the elimination of public "likes."
Under the plan, you'll be able to see how many hearts your posts get, but not other people's tallies. The effort is referred to internally as "Project Daisy" — as in: "She loves me. She love me not."
Likes are the social media currency undergirding the influencer economy, inspiring a million Kardashian wannabes and giving many of us regular people daily endorphin hits. But lately, Mosseri has been concerned about the unanticipated consequences of Instagram as approval arbiter.
He keeps thinking about an episode of "Black Mirror," a British dystopian anthology series, in which the characters rate everyone they interact with on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't end well.)
Mosseri knows something about dealing with dystopian tech fallout. He came to Instagram in October 2018 after years overseeing the Facebook News Feed, an unwitting engine of fake news, inflammatory rhetoric and disinformation. He wants to avoid similar pitfalls at Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
But making likes private will be a major shift for Instagram's more than 1 billion users, for whom daily assessment of one another's popularity has become like breathing.
And so the company is carefully considering how this will happen, for months "dog-fooding" (internal Insta-talk for testing) different variations of the new format. A post's achievement of "thousands of likes" or "tens of thousands of likes" might still be public. And users might be still be able to find others' likes with a little more digging in the app. But the average teenager under pressure to be popular won't need to suffer the indignity of only his mom liking his skateboarding post.
Mosseri sees Project Daisy, which the company intends to introduce in the next few months, as a signal to the world that he has learned from Facebook's mistakes and is thinking about the larger, potentially corrosive impact of social media.
"We should have started to more proactively think about how Instagram and Facebook could be abused and mitigate those risks," he said. "We're playing catch-up."
Mosseri, 36, is affable and easygoing, exuding the laid-back intensity of a Bay Area tech executive. He is accessible to news media and posts an endless stream of relatable photos of his young sons (#DadLife). And he does regular "ask me anything" sessions.
He likes to say that "technology isn't good or bad, it just is." He adds: "Social media, I think, often serves as a great amplifier of good and bad."
Then he got more philosophical: "With a new medium, it starts with euphoria and then goes to hysteria and then hopefully you get some kind of balance. It happened with the radio. This happened with TV. There was a huge amount of skepticism about reading Plato because he was writing and no one could argue vs. yelling into a public square."
That means that if Instagram were a Model T Ford, Mosseri is overseeing a period when he will have to start installing seat belts and air bags and other safety features.
"It's very natural for there to be strong skepticism," he said. "But I do think we create a lot of good in the world."