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Editorials, The Grid

Private Likes on X: Prioritising Users’ Privacy or Another Bold Move From Elon Musk?

Private likes might appear well thought out, especially given the rationale communicated, but we’re still left with more questions than answers.   

  • Johnson Opeisa
  • 14th June 2024

Just when you thought some semblance of normalcy and stability was starting to return to Twitter—sorry, I mean X—Elon Musk introduces yet another controversial change, with the latest one being the deployment of private likes. This development eliminates one of the platform’s famous and longest-standing features.


Speaking of X’s popular features, we all saw Musk get rid of some of them following his tumultuous $44 billion takeover in 2022. Features like circles and NFT-profile pictures were all axed, as the Tesla and SpaceX CEO ushered in his ownership.  Unsurprisingly, mixed reactions trailed these updates, but his implementation changes also introduced features like the premium subscription and community notes that have so far been widely appreciated.


However, the decision to make likes private has generated some sort of outcry from many tweeps who believe the development will disrupt the traditional reaction flow of the social media platform—likes, retweets (now reposts) and comments that have long been the backbone of X’s community dynamics.


 X’s engineering team announced on Tuesday that they are making likes private for everyone to “better protect privacy.” The update clarifies that each user will be able to see posts they’ve liked, but these will be hidden from others—while the post’s author retains notifications for all engagement, including likes.


In his characteristic assertive style, Musk quoted a publication’s report on the update, “Important to allow people to like posts without getting attacked for doing so!” The platform’s Director of Engineering, Haofei Wang, echoed similar sentiments in May: “Public likes are incentivising the wrong behaviour. For example, many people feel discouraged from liking content that might be ‘edgy’ in fear of retaliation from trolls, or to protect their public image.


The update went into effect on Wednesday, but Musk and Wang’s statements raise the question of whether making likes private is truly a matter of free expression or a suppression of it.


It’s like communicating verbally to an audience that operates with signs. Yes, likes don’t speak, nor are they the primary mode of communication on X, but there’s no denying their significance in the platform’s interaction mode. Likes function as a nonverbal cue, a thumbs-up that acknowledges content and fosters a sense of community. How often have you engaged with a tweet because you saw your mutuals liked it? What impact will not seeing what resonates with your network have on your experience on the platform? And in all sincerity, how many times have you judged a tweep based on their likes activities?


This in-app update might appear well thought out, especially given the rationale communicated, but we’re still left with more questions than answers. 


Perhaps time will tell if this is really a matter of prioritising users’ privacy or Musk increasing his momentum of dissociating completely from Twitter. 


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