05 December 2017

The Next Web: “Instagram tests letting you follow hashtags instead of people”

Can’t get enough #content on Instagram? Is following individual people just not enough to fill the social media void in your heart? Fret no more, for Instagram appears to be testing the ability to allow you to follow hashtags instead of humans, as spotted by @Social_pip.

In all seriousness, it could be a handy feature. Say you want a regular influx of cute cat photos, but can’t be bothered to search for them or follow their owners. Maybe you want your daily dose of #fitspo to come from new sources. Or perhaps you just want to follow a niche topic, and don’t know who to follow – so why not just follow the topic itself?

Napier Lopez

Somehow one of my Instagram accounts was included in the test last week, so I can only assume this experiment is getting closer to being released. It’s an interesting concept, but its usefulness is limited by a couple of factors. First there’s the noise it would add to users’ feeds. In my case the impact is low for now, I would say one post from hashtags every 5 to 10 posts from users I follow; then again I started following one single hashtag. Instagram’s algorithms will definitely be involved in selecting relevant images to display in the feed, but do we really want to cede even more control to opaque, proprietary algorithms?!

Follow hashtags on Instagram for iOS Suggestions for Popular Hashtags in Instagram feed
Instagram for iOS experiments with allowing users to follow hashtags in addition to people

Hashtag spam could present whole new issues now that people can follow them directly. ‘Influencers’ are already accustomed to employ every possible tactic for maximum reach, so this would be another reason to spam as many hashtags as possible in the hope of getting featured on more feeds.

On the other hand, as a user you’re never quite sure which hashtags to follow, because the same topic (say ‘long exposure’, or ‘aurora’) has multiple hashtags. If you follow most of them, you risk overwhelming your feed with a single theme; if you follow just a few, you risk losing amazing shots that weren’t ‘tagged the right way’. A better way of implementing this would be to use machine learning algorithms to categorize images into topics using both text captions and image contents.

As a side note, it’s strange that Twitter hasn’t experimented with something similar, given how the very term ‘hashtag’ was first coined there. There’s support for that in third party apps and TweetDeck, but unfortunately not on the main website and official apps.

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