Two new Instagram features emerged this week: the ability to follow hashtags and the addition of "recommended for you" into a user's feed. This might be great news for freebooters, and not so great news for users who are already disillusioned with Instagram's algorithms.
The option to follow hashtags was announced yesterday on the Instagram blog. "Now it’s even easier to stay connected with the interests, hobbies, passions, and communities you care about," the article explains. "Following a hashtag is just like following a friend." It's worth noting that, unless you have a private profile, other users will be able to see which hashtags you are following.
As reported by The Verge, Instagram is testing a "recommended for you" feature which will add content that has been liked by people that you follow into your feed. Users can currently see posts that their friends are engaging with by viewing the "Following" section of the app, but this new feature would select part of that information and push it into a user's main feed.
Given that Instagram's algorithm is seemingly unable to differentiate between original content and freebooted content, this is probably great news for "hub" accounts (i.e., those that repost popular content to build huge follower/customer bases, often through hashtags), and freebooters who take/repost content without permission in order to advertise a product or service. Instagram already promotes freebooted content in its "Videos you might like," and given the social media company's apparent reluctance to deal with the vast scale of copyright infringement occurring on its platform, this feature might provide another avenue for its proliferation.
Hashtag following opens up new potential revenue streams for Instagram, and also the potential for misuse. Instagram almost certainly intends to monetize this feature, allowing it to sell positions in a hashtag's algorithm to companies that want to place editorial or advertorial content. As Tim Peterson on Marketing Land points out:
Brands can already create their own hashtags and hope they take off on Instagram, but in buying a hypothetical sponsored hashtag, the brand could receive analytics on how people used the hashtag, as well as ways to target those people and others who saw posts featuring the hashtag.
Given that many hashtags have been hijacked, one wonders how Instagram will protect this new feature from abuse. Talk of "shadowbans" for using completely innocuous hashtags such as #kansas or #citycentre (you may wish to check this list) have been around for a while, and it seems inevitable that Instagram will have to have some tough moderation in place to stop popular hashtags from being undermined by hijackers.
Many users will be concerned that this is another move from Instagram that will make the service increasingly unusable. As The Verge notes:
It’s already difficult enough with Instagram’s algorithmic sorting to search through your feed, but add in a new recommended section and potential hashtags and it could get even more cluttered and harder to find posts from the people you actually follow.
Many photographers are tired of the number of adverts; of never seeing posts from their closest friends because the algorithm has deemed them irrelevant; of having to count manually the number of hashtags that they're using in every single post; of an algorithm that creates streams mixed with posts from an hour ago with posts from a week ago; and of a notification system that's completely useless. If the content creators finally tire of this game and decide to take their imagery elsewhere, Instagram may become nothing but commercial images, adverts, and selfies — a far cry from its origins as a platform for sharing original photography.